Wednesday, June 12, 2013

“The Perils of the Book Trade” Introductory Scenario

NTRPG Con marked the third time I’ve run “The Perils of the Book Trade,” a scenario intended to introduce beginners to Shiverwhen and demonstrate the overall “familiar but not familiar” theme that (hopefully) permeates the setting. It’s a simple investigation adventure, one that features some combat, but is equally about meeting the inhabitants of Shiverwhen, seeing some of its sights, and putting the old thinking cap one rather than murdering monsters in holes in the ground. So far, it’s been well-received by those who’ve play it and it provides just enough danger to be thrilling, while not so challenging to sour new arrivals to the game.
"Perils of the Book Trade" underway

The scenario involves the PCs getting hired to do a little pest-control at a newly-opened business in Shiverwhen’s twisted reflection of New Orleans, the city of Rowd (also known as the “City of Midnight” due to its nocturnal economy and lifestyle). As new arrivals to the city, the PCs are living in a shanty town along the riverfront, desperate for cash to buy their next meal and the opportunity to start building a reputation to better elevate them up Shiverwhen’s very important social ladder. Thankfully, once a thin, scarecrow of a man wearing a scholar’s coat and a natty silk cravat drops into their midst, the opportunity for both money and a patron appears.

The characters swiftly learn that something is in the process of putting this gentleman out of business, running loose amongst the man’s book collection and literally devouring the tomes found therein. Somebody needs to put down these menaces before his entire library is consumed and it needs to be done now! Like themselves, the businessman is a recent arrival to the city and that makes his quandary low priority for Rowd’s status-conscious constables. With no one else to turn to, the hiring of down-on-their-luck status seekers is his only hope.

From that humble beginning, the PCs find themselves contesting a clandestine scheme to drive the man out of business. Following scant clues, the characters journey to several locations within Rowd, questioning suspects, and trying to put together the reason why the humble businessman has made an enemy. Eventually, if their efforts are successful, the characters learn the location of the masterminds behind the scheme and confront them in a ruin outside of town. Depending on how fast they solve the crime, this final battle can be either an evenly matched contest or one involving horrors best left alone.

Of the three times I’ve run this scenario, the players have defeated the bad guys once, ran out of time once, and been taken captive and had to be rescued by another group once. The capture of the PCs led to the businessman’s death and the destruction of his business in a nasty fire. Hopefully, the fourth group to run through “Perils” at Conneticon 2013 will prove victorious.

D10s, D6s, glass beads, and Mountain Dew powered the game

“Perils of the Book Trade” originally featured six pre-generated “roles” for the players to choose from. These were:

The Ballisturgist: a would-be gunslinger who has the best weapon available—provided it doesn’t succumb to the Fade or he gets caught carrying it.

The Combatant: a melee fighter that swings a wood axe in battle and can take a lot of hurting before succumbing to his wounds.

The Uncanny: a psychic with the power to “read” people and objects, garnering clues as to their current emotional state or who has touched them last. The Uncanny also understands the secret language of old buildings and is able to question a structure about certain events.

The Kindler: the group’s cheerleader, healer, and good luck charm rolled into one. The Kindler can heal injuries, increase the chance of succeeding at tasks, and allow a failed attempt one more chance.

The Esotericist: a student of the occult capable of performing several minor magical actions, including divination, cleansing objects of malicious enchantments, and providing a small boost to the odds of succeeding in an action.

The Scrivener: a writer able to literally revise reality to better suit the characters, allowing the Scrivener to make small changes to people, items, or conditions simply by putting pen to paper.

When I submitted “Perils” to the events list for NTRPG Con, I was asked if I could run the game for eight players instead of the usual six. Luckily, I had some other roles I wanted to introduce into Shiverwhen, and increasing the number of potential playtesters allowed me to add two more roles to the pre-gen pool. These new additions were:

The Eclectician: an arcanic-mechanic capable of not only staving off the Fading of machines and other complex devices, but possessing the power to sabotage them. The Eclectician is armed with a gimcrack “stun gun” to temporarily incapacitate opponents.

The Sorsinger: part folk-singer, part bluesman, and part exorcist, the Sorsinger knows some of the old songs, and those songs have power. With the strum of his guitar, he can ferret out Nihoul’s agents, calm savage beasts, and hide in a crowd with preternatural ability.

Down in Texas, the players chose to run the Ballisturgist, the Combatant, the Kindler, the Scrivener, the Eclectician, and the Sorsinger, leaving the Uncanny and the Esotericist behind. Despite not having those two roles in the midst (who would have greatly aided the hunt for clues), the PCs were able to track down the bad guys and stop things before the really nasty stuff happened.

While the original six roles had already been playtested, this was the first time the Eclectician and the Sorsinger saw play and the results were mixed. The Eclectician worked out fine. His gimcrack stun gun helped out in battle and his familiarity with machines played a vital role at one point. The Sorsinger wasn’t such a success and the blame is entirely my own. The Sorsinger had a repertoire of songs available to him, but only one of them saw any use due to the construction of the scenario. I should have provided that role with one or two other songs that could have an impact on the investigation, but I planned poorly. And since the Sorsinger isn’t really a combat role, that left the poor player with not a lot to do throughout the session. Nevertheless, the playtester enjoyed the game and provided me with valuable feedback on how to smooth over some of the rough spots. So both a very big “thank you” and an apology go to Nakia Pope for being the guinea pig and official first sorsinger ever in Shiverwhen.

As an interesting aside, “Perils of the Book Trade” was recorded in its entirety in audio format as part of one player’s scholarly pursuits and parts of the transcript may appear in his final dissertation for future researchers to peruse and cite. That’s a pretty cool cherry to top an excellent playtest session with.
Ultimately, I intent to include “Perils of the Book Trade” with the game as the intro/sample adventure that accompanies it. I’m also considering the possibility of releasing a “quick start” version of the game (and yes, unfortunately that means the “cripple-ware” version) with “Perils” attached, much like Chaosium has done with the classic “The Haunted House” (AKA “The Haunting”) with their Call of Cthulhu quick start rules. The adventure is easy enough to change to suit any game starting in a large town or small city, making it both an excellent introduction to the game itself and a Shiverwhen campaign. Time will tell what route I pursue.

Let me close with a “thank you” to the NTRPG Con 2013 playtesters: Ryan Beam, Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr., Nakia Pope, Nick Mizer, Mike Reed, and Kelly Rowe. You all contributed to making Shiverwhen a better roleplaying game and you’ll be duly credited in the book.

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