Ministry of Unusual Affairs: GM Notes 1

What follows is a brief Q&A with the GM of our Play by e-Mail campaign featuring Agents of the Ministry of Unusual Affairs, using Leagues of Gothic Horror – a supplement for Leagues of Adventure.

GM (Murderbunny): I was looking forward to the recap of the caper in the caves. Thanks for this; reliving the campaign through the eyes of the players brings a little joy to my black heart.

Player (Runeslinger): What can you share about how you put the final scenes with the Hellfire Club and their cave together?

GMThere were a lot of aspects of the scenes in the caves that were challenging to design and execute and it all started from choices that I made in the evolution of the scenario design.

I had done some research into the historical Hellfire Club (which was a real thing, though LOGH takes a few liberties and I took plenty more) and the discovery of the caves as real places where naughtiness may or may not have taken place was too compelling to ignore.

The layout of the caves in-game is pretty close to the historical maps I found, and I decided that a lot of elements that were rumors but not proven (ie, secret passages) would be true. The Temple in-game was quite a bit bigger than the real Temple at the heart of the real West Wycombe caves, because nobody’s going to summon an 8ft-tall demon with a 30ft wingspan in a chamber the size of my living room.

A lot of the manifestation of the Hellfire Club in the game came from the decision that the worst of the salacious rumors about them would be true, and worse. The real founders of the Hellfire Club were basically 18th century edgelords with too much money and too much time on their hands, who liked drugs, sex and… um… waltzing? Anyway, they were no more sincere in their Devil-worship than 1990’s teenagers who wore black nail polish and pentacles to just to scare their overly conservative parents.

In, shall we say, a rejected draft of the scenario, I envisioned the Hellfires as far less competent villains, and their summoning of the demon would practically be a “happy” accident. After a more careful reading of the rules, I understood just how difficult Magic was in general, and how thorny Summon Horror was in particular, so to me it made the “rich idiot gets book, reads spell, unleashes hell” scenario far less feasible.

So from that came the layered conspiracy structure of the Hellfire Club; idle rich hedonists on the surface, wannabe occultists in the middle, and hardcore warlocks at the core.

Selfish hedonism is a hell of a gateway drug, though, and a habit the inner circle
of warlocks, despite their competence at the dark arts and controlling a cult, could not quite shake. They love their self-aggrandizing theatrics too much to be truly efficient, so they indulge in some Bond Villain Stupidity like bragging about their greatness instead of just shooting their enemies, and summoning an angel of retribution to kill an enemy when a smarter criminal would just hire half a dozen thugs from Whitechapel for some dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

But why settle for “boring but practical”? It’s delightful fun to play a hammy villain, so I was pretty happy to have at least three of them in the same room engaging in some serious ham-to-ham combat.

Player: As this is happening as a PBeM campaign, the pace allows time for everyone to think before they act, so to speak. How did things go compared to how you imagined things might go?

GM: Sanity loss had a bigger impact on the action than I had anticipated, with several NPCs’ Sanity shooting through the floor within two turns of combat with the demon. I had an eye on the Horror Rating for the demon which was “only” 3, but I hadn’t taken into account the effects of traumatizing events like witnessing said demon bisect the beloved base commander.

Although, it’s nice to see game mechanics reproduce scenes in movies where, once the claws come out and the blood begins to fly, the extras all run screaming, leaving the heavy work to Our Heroes.

Player: On the player side, seeing that demon and ending up in battle with it were huge and challenging surprises. Playing in email, without rolls – just Taking the Average and Style – made it feel even more challenging as some of the usual things like lucky rolls and the invocation of Chance dice were taken out of the equation.

In the end, it put me in mind of the sort of challenge that we see Van Helsing, Harker, and crew having to face when trying to put down Gary Oldman’s turn as Dracula. Our period of fearful investigation ended in bloody conflict and personal loss.

There is no doubt the characters came away from this mission changed.

How do you see the characters? Did they offer any surprises to you as the GM, or throw you any curves that you had to address in play?

GM: Plenty of surprises and curves. There is much suspense and anticipation when waiting for posts. Pretty much every time you’ve used Nathaniel’s Well-Connected trait to pull a single-serving friend out of his ass. A nicely unpredictable trait, that one. Keeps me on my toes.

I wasn’t expecting the Rat King to be captured, at least not at that point in the scenario. I also wasn’t expecting Visscher’s arrest at the start of the scenario.

Player: Reggy was responsible for both of those. How about his Honesty Flaw?

GM: I can pretty well predict/anticipate his honesty. I have been surprised by his persistence instead. KO’ing the Rat King and punching Nemesis, for example.

Player: What made you choose the Ministry of Unusual Affairs as the core of this campaign rather than one of many, many other leagues?

GM:  A combination of things that I wanted out of the scenarios. I was in the mood for something that lent itself easily to “monster hunter” scenarios: there is Evil afoot and Team Good Guy must stop it.

I suppose any League could be bent to that purpose but some put more emphasis on it than others. I remember it coming down to three choices when I started polling the players: Holy Brotherhood, Vengeants Guild and MoUA. I recall that Holy Brotherhood was unpopular; maybe the players were put off by the religious elements, I’m not sure, so it came down to Vengeants or MoUA.

Players seemed split/undecided on it, so GM had to issue the tie breaking vote. When I had more time to re-read the League descriptions and think about it, MoUA felt more… what’s the word…? Multifaceted? Nuanced? Deep?

If I compare to other media, Vengeants = Supernatural , while MoUA = The X-Files. I saw more varied and more interesting hooks more easily with what the MoUA presented me, so I came off the fence on that side. I suppose it’s the same impulse that drew me to Nights Black Agents (the game that I was most recently running which ended prematurely due to the death of a player): Shadowy government agents vs shadowy supernatural conspiracies.

Player: Any final comments for this assignment and its recaps?

GM: SO MANY. I’m not quite sure where to start.

Player: How about development of NPC relationships with PC protagonists and antagonists?

GM: Ah, fun stuff! Well, I suppose it had to start with the NPC that, while not present in most of the scenes is one of the biggest influences on your characters lives, and that would be Sir Chambers.

He is your boss, so I had to decide what kind of boss he would be, and how his experiences would shape his interactions with the team(s) under his command. So on broad axes: competence vs incompetence, secular vs occult, hands-on vs hands-off… I wound up thinking about Asst. Director Skinner’s relationship with Mulder & Scully a lot.

I liked that Skinner often did his best to be reasonable and protect his agents, but it was clear that he had rules and superiors he had to answer to, so he couldn’t simply let Mulder chase after aliens in the government without a DAMN good reason. Skinner gave his agents what leeway he could, but when they fucked up he was sure to let them know about it.

Chambers is not Skinner, but that was a relationship dynamic I wanted to build between him and the PCs. The players should respect him enough to care that the Evil Cult sent a demon to kill him. They should also worry about the consequences of ticking him off. Most of the players built characters with a military background, so having a boss plucked from the military is both appropriate to the setting and creates common ground between them all.

Player: True~

GM:  There are times when I’ll want players to be confronted with the shortcomings of their peers or their superiors, but Chambers would not be a constant source of perilous incompetence.

There are other NPCs for that. 😉

NPCs like Carrington, Hennessey and Claverdon were designed to be sympathetic to the PCs so it would make sense that the PCs would help them for reasons beyond following orders. All three of them are very talented in their fields, but found themselves either in over their heads (Carrington), under-utilized (Hennessey), or abused (Claverdon).

Players tend to lose sympathy for “damsels/dudes in distress” if they are perceived to have come to their distress as a result of their own stupidity (ie, Kim Bauer, Bella Swan *barf*).

Player: Much of what you are describing reminds me a lot of how we came to handle large-scale NPC interactions in our linked World of Darkness games in the 90s. I feel like some of these skills or approaches have been refined in the intervening years and some have been lost, replaced with tropes and archetypes.

GM: I had decided that Carrington would be unable to assist with his own rescue/escape, and this would complicate the operation to rescue him. But, if he came off as a dim-dum who is rapidly becoming more trouble than he’s worth, Team PC would start seriously wondering if they shouldn’t just shoot him and leave his corpse in the caves. I had considered more complicated complications (betrayal, demonic possession, mind-control) but in the end settled on him simply being too drugged to look out for himself.

Sometimes simple is best. There was enough going on in that scene as it was.

Player: I thought that demonstrated great instincts and it was a good tie-in to Nathaniel’s backstory of abandonment by the government and resulting imprisonment in a hostile nation’s penal system. He wasn’t about to leave Carrington there.

GM:  I hadn’t thought of the parallels at the time; I’m glad that you did. 😉

This also meant that the enemy had to be competent enough to be a credible threat, but also having a few glaring weaknesses that smart people could exploit. Which you did and that’s why you’re all still alive. 🙂

Since Carrington would never get a chance to show his prowess “on stage” you would have to infer it from his reports to HQ, and the prowess of his captors. If the villains were completely stupid, what would it say about Carrington that he got caught by them?

Notice that it didn’t take long for Caligula to figure out that Reggy and Hennessey didn’t belong at the costume party.

Player: Thanks for your responses to this round of GM Commentary for the Agents of the Ministry campaign~

Read the Recaps:

Part One           Part Two         Part Three

 

 

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