Sleepless Nights, Session Three: The Specimen

I ran the third session of Sleepless Nights, my centuries-spanning (millennia, really) vampire campaign with an increasingly big cast. Once again, it was the introduction of another player character to undeath.

This session report, like the first two, focuses on my observations and decisions as game master.

December, 1216 AD. Gdansk, Poland.

Player Characters

  • Gunnulf Sigurdsson, 52, formerly of the Varangian Guard of Constantinople, now the friend and bodyguard of the rich Polish merchant Stanislaw. A gigantic Norse berserker born a couple of centuries too late, he upholds the traditions of his ancestors as best he can. A good-humored family man, and a hardened veteran; notable everywhere for being the largest and loudest man anyone’s seen.
  • Three-Finger Thomas, 30, his son, a master builder. Chronically frustrated.
  • Ysabella, 25, Thomas’s wife and Stanislaw’s daughter. Attractive, bad-tempered, and licentious.
  • Hindrich Kebler, 58, Jewish advocate and the harbormaster of Gdansk. Strict and acerbic.
  • Zvodomir, a petty nobleman charged with matters of trade. Quiet and infirm, but charming.

Non-Player Characters

  • Stanislaw, 58, a wealthy merchant with business all over the Baltic and along the length of the river Vistula. Jovial and ostentatious. Gunnulf’s friend, and Ysabella’s father.
  • Mr. Rebelka, ~25, Zvodomir’s manservant. Polite, handsome, and effective.
  • Marcus, a visitor. Cheerful and unpredictable.
  • Two maidservants.
  • Two town guards.

A Business Dinner

A year earlier, the Kingdom of Poland has disintegrated into independent duchies. This is a great opportunity for Stanislaw, as the old laws and directives on trade can now be renegotiated in his favor. He has arranged for an invitation from Zvodomir for this purpose. Thomas is joining in the hopes of securing funding for a building project, and his wife and father are tagging along. Hindrich has been invited to give Zvodomir legal advise and to draw up the resulting contracts.

Once again, I didn’t put a lot of effort into historical authenticity. Gdansk would have been a small town in 1216 instead of the bustling city portrayed here. I have no idea what the actual repercussions of the kingdom’s dissolution would’ve been. The social norms concerning interactions between nobility and burghers, Poles and foreigners, Christians and Jews? Winged it.

A town messenger knocks on the door during the extended family’s preparations for their visit to Zvodomir’s house. He informs them that a curfew is in effect during night hours due to an epidemic of some sort upriver. Apparently there is concern that the river may carry an infectious miasma that, like ordinary fog, would be prone to emanating from the water during the night.

Little bits of dissonance like this are wonderful for bringing a setting to life, I think. Yeah, medieval medical theories are sort of crazy and sort of make sense, and they should be part of a medieval character’s mindset. An equally effective, though slightly more difficult aspect to pull off is the moral dissonance that arises from the setting’s ethical norms differing a great deal from the players’. With both, I find, there’s a goldilocks zone of pervasiveness: too much dissonance, and immersion suffers while hesitation increases; too little, and instead of a different world, the setting becomes just set dressing.

Arriving in late afternoon at Zvodomir’s town house (his actual residence is a manor a half day’s ride away), they are welcomed by Mr. Rebelka, who informs them that the host will join them shortly. Hindrich is already there, and Stanislaw wastes no time striking up a conversation with the harbormaster. Gunnulf also joins in. A little later, Mr. Rebelka helps Zvodomir down from his room, holding him by the arm. The frail little man orchestrates the blend of business meeting and social event deftly, and all have a more or less pleasant dinner.

This was actually most of the 5-hour session: just roleplaying a little dinner party. There were rolls: Reaction Rolls, Savoir-Faire rolls, and Self-Control rolls. The mood was distinctly comedic, but I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.

Night Guests

The town messenger visits calls again late in the evening, to say that the curfew has been extended for the entirety of the following day and night, and advises Mr. Rebelka to keep the windows well shut throughout. The dinner continues. At one point, a loud noise comes from Zvodomir’s room. Zvodomir and Mr. Rebelka go up to investigate, and find Marcus sitting in Zvodomir’s chair. He informs Zvodomir that he’s just visiting to check up on an old friend, and for a heads-up: one of “our kind” who’s been dormant for a long while is up and about again, and might be unpredictable. Zvodomir adduces that this is the cause of the epidemic upriver, which Marcus neither affirms nor denies. Zvodomir asks Marcus to join the guests downstairs, but he declines as it would be absurd for a guest to have entered through a second-floor window, and asks that Zvodomir say it was merely a bird that had flown in. Zvodomir agrees to do so, but tells Marcus he’s not particularly worried about developing a reputation, as he intends to leave the area anyway sometime soon.

I had prepared Zvodomir’s player by handing him a note just before he entered play, saying his parent vampire, Marcus Sarmaticus, has sent him a telepathic message that he’ll be coming to visit. Up until this scene, between just Zvodomir and my NPC Marcus, the other players didn’t know Zvodomir was a vampire. I was quite happy with how this little Hitchcockian touch went over: the players, in the position of an audience, knowing about a danger their characters were ignorant about. The one-on-one interaction was nice, too: Zvodomir’s player was ready with subdued banter, and I think we managed to portray an old, but not unproblematic, friendship quite entertainingly, with little to go on. I’d only seen and approved of Zvodomir’s character sheet earlier that day, and had invented Marcus pretty much on the spot. Zvodomir’s player fluently slipped in little interesting hooks, like nonchalantly telling Marcus about planning to leave town. Why? When? Who knows! But even though we, the players and GM, did not know at the time what the background here was, it added verisimiltude and a potential connection for later developments. Good stuff.

Zvodomir and Mr. Rebelka return downstairs, and the evening continues. Plans are made for all the guests staying for the night due to the curfew, and the evening turns to drinking. Stanislaw and Ysabella both go a bit further than their tolerance warrants, with predictable results: he pressures the host and Mr. Kleber to negotiations he can no longer conduct very well himself, while she flirts with Mr. Rebelka and snaps at her husband. Thomas decides that he and his wife will retire for the night, while Mr. Rebelka helps Stanislaw to another guest room, and Mr. Kleber takes the opportunity to get some rest as well. Rooms have been prepared for all the guests, with the somewhat surprising decor element of large garlic wreaths hung on the windows and bedposts. (Zvodomir had assigned this task to Mr. Rebelka as soon as he knew Marcus would be visiting.) Ysabella brusquely throws these out, and the couple argue some more. Thomas finally slips out to the stables and takes out his frustration on a saddle, whipping it with a riding crop and cursing his wife, father, father-in-law, and entire life. When he returns, both have calmed down, and almost manage to reconcile and go to sleep without further argument—but not quite.

Ysabella’s and Thomas’s players did a fine job with their marriage, evoking a real sense of years of humiliation and resentment, not untempered with tenderness and sympathy.

Gunnulf stays up a bit longer, drinking with Zvodomir (although he has to do all the drinking himself), until finally he loses the mood. As he is too big for an ordinary bed, Mr. Rebelka has taken the liberty of having one of the girls sew together two mattresses for him; these are laid down on the dining room floor. He stays awake alone for a while longer, drinking melancholically, but eventually the sound of his snoring fills the house.

Big Game Trophy Hunting

While Gunnulf is in the process of drinking himself to sleep, Marcus decides to go have a look at the guests. He first checks up on the married couple, whom he finds deep in slumber; the other two guest rooms are filled with noxious garlic, which he takes as a bit of a slap, as he lets Zvodomir know. When Gunnulf has also fallen asleep, he goes for a look at this exceptionally loud man as well, and presently returns to Zvodomir’s room aquiver.

“It didn’t occur to you to tell me about that! That absolute colossus!” he upbraids his host. “You were planning on keeping it for yourself, weren’t you?”

Zvodomir feigns ignorance.

“If you admit that was your plan, you can keep it—it’s your catch. But it’s got to be had.”

Zvodomir reminds Marcus that perhaps turning the largest man on the continent into a vampire is less inconspicuous than could be hoped, but the older vampire brushes his objections aside.

“Just imagine me showing it off to the others!” he enthuses, and continues by musing that in any case, a time is coming, so he believes, when their kind no longer have any need to hide and disguise themselves. This arouses Zvodomir’s interest: what does Marcus mean by that?

“How many Mithraeums have you seen built these last few hundred years? The bad days are past,” Marcus expounds, “and we’re looking at the beginnings of a modern age, a prosperous and cultured one, where superstitions will no longer hold us down!”

Bringing the conversation back to “it”, or Gunnulf, Zvodomir advises Marcus that if he’s going to do it, he should take the body into the basement for the day. Marcus, in turn, suggests that Zvodomir tell the other guests that the giant fell ill during the night, and was taken away for treatment by Zvodomir’s physician, Doctor Marcus. Then, excited like a child, he slips downstairs, and when he returns after a few minutes, he’s rubbing his belly and licking his lips. “I had to go and spit some out the window before I could finish,” he tells Zvodomir with a contented smile.

When Gunnulf’s player showed me his first draft for a character with Gigantism and Strength 18, I knew this level of extremeness couldn’t be incidental to his becoming a vampire, it would have to be central. One possibility would have been to base his transformation on the desire of an older vampire to recruit himself some muscle for inter-undead rivalries, but I thought it might be interesting to do a slight variation on the idea. So Marcus didn’t want Gunnulf for an enforcer, although he’d certainly serve for that, but simply to show him off. To whom? That remains to be seen. And what was that about Mithraeums? Again, great fun as a GM to drop hints like this about things that might—or might not—play a big role in the underlying lore of the game world. This is another reason why running a campaign in a setting of my own, however derivative, is so much more appealing to me than existing properties. The players have no way of knowing what I haven’t decided to reveal about the setting yet (or what I haven’t nailed down for myself), so they’ll have to make do with little throwaway lines like that to speculate on. Or just ignore them, which is much more likely.

The Worst Hangover

The following morning, Mr. Rebelka informs the guests that, due to his infirmity, the master of the house will not be rising very soon, and that Gunnulf has been taken in for treatment by a Dr. Marcus. Thomas, however, refuses to believe this: firstly, his father is never ill; secondly, he would not have left without informing them; thirdly, no one has heard of a Dr. Marcus; fourthly, no competent physician would have taken the patient out with the miasma in the streets; and last of all, if his father had been ill enough to need some sort of immediate treatment, it would have taken at least four men to carry him out! He suspects foul play and immediately sets about searching the house.

Stanislaw is too badly hung over to be of much help, and Mr. Kebler does his best to stay out of the way, but Ysabella helps her husband. To Mr. Rebelka’s exasperated protests, Thomas searches the servants’ quarters, the stables, and all the guest rooms, until only the master’s bedroom and a locked basement are left. Thomas gets a hammer from the tool shed by the stables and sets about breaking into the basement. Mr. Rebelka, at his wits’ end, finally goes up to wake Zvodomir, who commands, with exhausted consternation, that Thomas be shown to his bedroom. The room is a sparsely furnished chamber with the windows meticulously shut and sealed. The nobleman’s weak voice creeps from the bed in the corner, explaining with great condolences that Dr. Marcus is his own personal physician, and that the poor Mr. Sigurdsson was escorted to his residence on the other side of the city sometime in the late evening. He declines to elaborate and asks Thomas to remain patient.

Not reassured, Thomas finishes breaking the lock of the basement door. Mr. Rebelka pleads with him, saying that the damp, dark basement is partly flooded and must be entirely contaminated with the miasma. Undaunted, Thomas makes his way down the stairs, while Ysabella goes to find a lamp, and follows her husband shortly. Mr. Rebelka convinces Stanislaw to stay out of sight in order to avoid the miasma. Mr. Kebler, on the other hand, keeps an eye on Mr. Rebelka as he follows the two down, and emerges a little while later, dragging up an unconscious Thomas. “He fell and knocked his head,” Mr. Rebelka explains with all the cool he can manage. He drags Thomas to bed, and goes down again to get Ysabella. “The same thing happened to her,” he explains. “She must have passed out from the miasma.”

These two casualties were the first approximation of an action scene. Well, a Per roll against Marcus’s Stealth for each (Marcus won both, obviously), followed by attack rolls from Marcus: a punch from behind with All-Out Attack for +4, +4 for Telegraphic Attack, and -7 for hit location. With DX ~16, these were no more than a formality. His damage roll was easily enough to cause a major wound in both cases, and the resulting Knockdown roll at -10 is a fairly sure finisher. He could have just as easily killed them both, but chose not to. Had this happened during the night, he would’ve used Mesmerism, but Vampirism abilities don’t work during daylight hours!

This is too much for Kebler, who anxiously talks to Stanislaw about the matter. He goes off to find out what is going on. When Kebler follows, he finds Mr. Rebelka tying the two unconscious guests to their bed, with a nightcap and a sock stuffed into Thomas’s and Ysabella’s mouths, respectively. Worst of all, from under the bed protrude Stanislaw’s boots. Kebler takes off running, and Mr. Rebelka follows, claiming listlessly that all can be explained. He does not pursue the terrified advocate outside.

Everybody’s Up All Night

Thomas and Ysabella come to in the bed, tied up too tight to wriggle free, a little before nightfall. Mr. Rebelka tries, unsuccessfully, to calm them down, but has to leave as someone bangs on the front door. It’s Kebler, with two apprehensive-looking town guards. Mr. Rebelka lets them in, and the guards look about uncertainly in the darkened hall, every window of which has been carefully blinded.

Kebler’s player went off to find some sort of town guard. I had no idea if there would have been such a thing, or where they would have been found. But it’s certainly not a lot of fun to just stomp on players’ plans if they’re not outright untenable, so I ruled there is such an entity. The reaction roll was pretty lousy, however, so he ended up with two poorly motivated, not particularly capable mooks. “I can’t send my best men out in the miasma,” the surly captain of the guard told him, “so take those two.” Good luck!

Kebler insists that Mr. Rebelka is a murderous lunatic, and that the guards must take him into custody immediately. The guards are not pleased at the thought of intruding into a nobleman’s private house, and carrying off his personal servant. As they hesitate, an unfamiliar figure appears from some room deeper in the house: a man in a long gray cloak, tall boots, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a beaked mask of polished black leather. He introduces himself as Dr. Marcus.

The classic plague doctor costume is an unabashed anachronism. As far as I can tell, the beaked mask didn’t appear until 400 years later. Well, this is a wainscot fantasy/secret history game, so maybe the anachronisms hint at deeper secrets? Or maybe it’s just too cool a look for me to ignore.

Dr. Marcus explains, not brusquely, but with confident brevity, that he has multiple patients in the house, all of them suffering from the effects of the miasma, and that the house itself is heavily contaminated. It doesn’t take much to drive the guards off, and Kebler finally gives up, too; after all, no one can claim he hasn’t carried out whatever responsibility he carries for these people. No one can blame him from slinking off and never coming near the madhouse again.

The sun sets early, it being winter, and Gunnulf wakes up. He is baffled to find himself in a basement, feeling vigorous but hungry. Everything looks odd, and when he finds his way out into the yard, he is shocked to find that what he assumed was a hazy daylight is actually the light of the full moon, unnaturally magnified. He goes back inside and wanders into the pantry in search for food, maybe a juicy hunk of meat, but nothing tastes right. He’s joined by Marcus, a man he’s never seen before. Marcus explains nothing, but draws Gunnulf’s attention to his newly increased strength and speed and his heightened senses, inviting him to enjoy himself and the great gift he’s been given. Gunnulf’s confused joy is cut short, when he hears the terrified cry of his son, and he bounds up the stairs to the married couple’s bedroom.

He gives the door a shove, and it tears loose from its hinges and slams across the room. Inside are Mr. Rebelka, stunned, Zvodomir, completely unfazed, and Thomas and Ysabella, who have just managed to loosen their gags. Zvodomir has come with the intention of mesmerizing the two into forgetting the entire day, but is interrupted before he can finish with Thomas. Thomas is terrified and outraged, and demands to know what is going on. Zvodomir drops all pretense and calmly explains that he is a vampire, as are Gunnulf, and Marcus, who has followed him up. Neither Gunnulf, Thomas, nor Ysabella has an entirely clear idea what exactly a vampire is, although all know it’s got something to do with sucking blood and rising from the grave.

Default rolls against Occultism + 5, i.e. IQ, all around, but only marginal successes. I figured this means they would have the basics right, but should contaminate their understanding of the concept freely with superstitions and mistakes.

Thomas manages to get loose, and Mr. Rebelka tries to subdue him. The sight of his son being manhandled drives Gunnulf over the edge, and he grabs Mr. Rebelka, slams him against the freshly boarded-up window, and sinks his teeth in. Zvodomir grabs Thomas, bites his own finger, and stuffs it in Thomas’s mouth.

Zvodomir has the Vampirism abilities Improved Mesmerism, giving him more options for mind control and wiping memories, and Enslavement, which permits him to turn mortals into Renfieldish henchmen, just like ghouls in Vampire: The Masquerade. The vampire in the first session had Enslavement too, and the one in the second one might also have had it, judging by the mortals who fed her with captives. It’s just such a good fit for an NPC master vampire that I have no doubt it will make many more appearances in the campaign. Whether players might want to invest in it is another matter altogether, however.

The question of how quickly Enslavement works had not come up before, but was of vital importance here. I honestly hadn’t given it any thought, so, like I most often do, I left it to the dice. I told Thomas’s player I would roll a die, and the lower I rolled, the quicker the effect. The die came up a 1, so I decided the effect would be instantaneous. In retrospect, the way the ability’s built, it should have worked immediately anyway: it doesn’t have an Onset limitation, and without one, an Affliction takes effect immediately. If I had rolled higher, maybe I would now be updating the ability to reflect what had happened in-game? My gut feeling is that an in-game event takes precedence over prior metagame concerns like specific powers, if the event in question or the ruling it follows from is not in conflict with an earlier, comparable event or ruling. As a rules lawyer, I have great respect for precedent!

Gunnulf demands that Zvodomir let his son and daughter-in-law go, and the diminutive nobleman consents readily. “You are all free to go in peace. I want no harm to anyone, and have sought only to protect you all,” he explains. Before he releases Thomas and pulls his finger out of the poor man’s mouth, however, he advises him to go kiss his wife. He does this as they leave, giving Ysabella a mouthful of Zvodomir’s blood! The two are now Zvodomir’s blood thralls (Does that sound right? I haven’t settled on a term.) and calmly tell Gunnulf that they’re fine and are just going to go home and not worry about the whole thing. And besides, they explain, Zvodomir, whom they hold in the highest regard, must have had perfectly rational reasons for all his actions, and really, Gunnulf should be more respectful of his house and servants.

Marcus, who has followed the events at an arm’s reach, comes up to Gunnulf and convinces him to turn back, and let him and Zvodomir explain the whole thing. Gunnulf meekly follows him, and they settle down for a brief chat about being a vampire. Marcus promises Gunnulf to show him the ropes and keep him company, if he wishes, to make the transition as easy as possible. He also apologizes to Zvodomir for making such a mess, but Zvodomir brushes the matter aside, reminding Marcus that he’s going to be leaving the area very soon anyway. Marcus decides he and Gunnulf will tag along, because why not see a bit of the world while you’re at it? Zvodomir asks if either of them has been to Africa—as fantastic an idea for Gunnulf as having been to the Moon—and Marcus, of course, is thrilled. Africa it is!

It was with this tantalizing hint at things to come that we finished the session. Next time, a new player character will get his turn at resurrection, and perhaps one or more of the existing vampire characters will be present when he does!


3 thoughts on “Sleepless Nights, Session Three: The Specimen

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