Sleepless Nights, Session Four: The Grand Master

We played two sessions of Sleepless Nights in June. This is a short report on the first of those. Unlike in earlier session reports, I’m not attempting a full blow-by-blow; this is just a summary of the more significant events, and a few asides on my decisions and observations as GM.

Malta, 1604

Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (formerly the Knights Hospitaller), is entertaining three guests at his palace. The first of these, in order of appearance, is an alchemist, whom Alof has invited to Malta in the hopes of some concoction that would prolong his waning life. He will play no significant role in the story.

These introductory sessions of Sleepless Nights have the same structure, basically: one player gets to play his or her last few days or hours as a mortal, with the other players either running their own, older vampire characters, or one-shot supporting cast types. In this case, only one of the player characters was such a one-shot mortal, and he ended up having not much to do. I didn’t plan it that way (or any way): he was an alchemist, and both the focal character, Alof, and one of the two existing vampires, had a keen interest in alchemy; he might have just as well become central to the emerging plot. If this were a normal scenario, I would have tried to throw more hooks his way when I noticed he was drifting into the sidelines, but this was Alof’s show. Every player gets their spotlight time in this campaign, but not necessarily in every session.

His other two guests are “Count” Dracula, a minor nobleman and fellow scourge of the Turks, and an enormous, elderly knight from somewhere in the high north, Gunnulf.(Actually, Gunnulf was travelling under a pseudonym that I can’t recall.) He and Dracula had run into each other the same evening at the harbor, having just disembarked from separate ships: Dracula had travelled under his customary identity of a Transylvanian count, and Gunnulf, with the help of his blood thrall, as cargo. This was the first time either of them had met a vampire other than their own vampiric parents and siblings, and after a few moments of initial sniffing and handshakes to test the other’s superhuman strength, they formed a tentative, but effortless, partnership on the spot. Gunnulf tagged along under Dracula’s invitation to Alof’s table. Dracula had come to scout out the Order to see if he could clandestinely usurp it, while Gunnulf was looking into a descendant of his, a member of the Order, this concern for his living progeny being his preoccupation in unlife.

Alof entertains his guests dutifully, if not enthusiastically; he would have much rather had a private dinner with the alchemist, whom he had personally invited and wished to discuss esoteric matters with. To make matters worse, the dinner is interrupted by a request for a private audience from one of Alof’s captains. Alof excuses himself and goes to converse with this person, Sir Henri, a member of the Brotherhood of the Sacred Skull, a mystic sect within the Order. Some years earlier, Alof had been forced to curtail the activities of the Brotherhood, which venerates the skull of John the Baptist treasured by the Order, as some members of it had sunk to dangerous heresies and blasphemous rituals. Henri, however, is a highly devout man and visibly distressed: he has had a vision of a great darkness descending on the island and threatening the Grand Master himself. Alof, frustrated, grants his request of a mass and a communal prayer for the Grand Master’s safety in the palace chapel.

The mass is attended by Alof, his guests, and some two dozen knights of the Order. During the Act of Penitence, however, an invisible force that Gunnulf and Dracula have not encountered before begins to radiate from the praying Henri, and afflicts them with pain and nausea. The two vampires, shocked by this supernatural assault, escape from the chapel with inhuman speed. Alof immediately declares a general alert, and organizes the men present for the purpose of capturing his guests.

At this point, the game entered that confusing middle ground between freeform roleplaying with the occasional roll on the one hand, and strict turn-by-turn action on the other. “I run back into the dining room!” “I get out of the palace and try to climb up on the roof!” “I follow them with six picked men!” Arbitrating these scenes is one of my big challenges as GM: I need to give each player a chance to execute their own plan, arbitrate between excited players jostling for their turn, manage the flow of events with multiple concurrent streams of action in changing locations, decide when mechanics are necessary and when they can be ignored or abbreviated, and try not to ruin the mood by either bogging the play down or let the excitement get out of hand. It’s wonderful when it works, but it can be stressful, too. Some time I’d like to run a game with strict metarules like “don’t split the party” and “all action in combat time” for a change.

General mayhem ensues as the two vampires run off their separate ways to fight with and hide from knights and guards. Alof leads his men with confidence and skill, but Dracula manages to grab him and go into hiding. Gunnulf shapeshifts into a giant wolf and tracks Dracula by scent. Along the way, he evades Henri, who brandishes a cross and commands the spawn of darkness to leave, with real power in his words. (Henri uses the Exorcism skill, which, the players thus find out, can work on vampires.) Gunnulf finds Dracula before the humans do, and together, still carrying Alof, they escape into the catacombs beneath the city. (In reality, the catacombs of Valletta, while impressive, are not extensive enough to hide from an organized search party. Any gothic aspect of the environment and historical reality is naturally exaggerated in this campaign.)

Dracula, having been wounded by a sword earlier, sinks his teeth into Alof, and Gunnulf, who has not yet fed today, follows suit. With Dracula on the carotid artery and Gunnulf on the brachial, they finish Alof off, and settle into the underground darkness for the day. The following evening, Alof rises from the dead.

This was another fun session, and foreshadowed an interesting dynamic between Alof and Dracula: both are military commanders and monarchs, men very much accustomed and attuned to dominance, with greatly different personalities. In our post-session discussions, as Alof’s player set about designing the vampiric version of his character, we determined that he retained his mortal identity for some time. Upon retiring from mortal life, he established a new chivalric order centered on himself, increasing the power of which is his primary goal in the future. We will hear more about them in the next session Alof appears in.

The Brotherhood of the Sacred Skull will also make another appearance in the campaign. After his resurrection, Alof purged them from the Order to protect himself from their supernatural powers, but I’ve already decided that they were not thoroughly eliminated. (The idea of St. John the Baptist’s head being held by the Hospitallers is ahistorical: they possessed St. John’s skeletal hand, while the Templars were rumored to have the skull. The Church has the supposed real head in Rome, but a few other places around the world also lay claim to this relic. Whether the Brotherhood’s Sacred Skull did belong to St. John, or is of some other origin, remains a mystery in the campaign setting.)

One disappointment did present itself in this session: Dracula’s player was unhappy with the limited reliability of Mesmerism. And he has a point: a contest of IQ + Talent versus the target’s Will, only has a limited chance of success, and as it happens, of six attempts he made during the session, only two worked. This was all the more frustrating, as the player had spent a lot of points on Improved Mesmerism 3. After considering the matter for a while, I decided to stick with my earlier rulings and not alter the ability. Instead, I’m encouraging the player, and all others who make regular use of Mesmerism, to spend a lot of points on the Hypnotism skill, which can replace IQ for Mind Control (and the linked mental Affliction). Putting 20 points into Hypnotism for +4 to these contests is not a trivial investment, but it’s also not unreasonable considering its actual value in play.

Next time, I’ll report on the fifth session of the campaign, in which Kazimierz, sailor and humanist, received the bite, and another major element of the campaign setting was revealed to the players.


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