Wednesday, July 5, 2017

New Dawn Session 21: The Grimstut Case

Precis: The PCs investigate the death of an ally.

The 21st session of my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game New Dawn mostly focused on a murder investigation. The orcs had counterattack and retaken the liberated city of Grimstut, and Diane Behm, the rebel Countess of Grimstut, had been caught in the city and forced to hide for several days. She was discovered by collaborators, betrayed to the orcs, and executetd. The PCs decided to find the collaborators and punish them.

This plotline arose from a throw away little bit of fluff that I added to the game to help remind the PCs that the orcs are jerks. I asked if anyone was interested in investigating it, and everyone was, so I decided to make an adventure out of it.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy but is branching out into military raids as the PCs become Mass Combat units in their own right.

Raven dropped out the game suddenly, so Ben got promoted to player and took over Zarathras.

The PCs involved in the investigation were:
Attivi, Trahaern, and Greex continued on to command the war effort in the northwest.

The Direct Action team of Ariana, Sven, and Zarathras were joined by
They spent the last bit of the session beating up orcs.

Writing a Murder Mystery

I have a copy of GURPS Mysteries, so I read through it for advice. The most useful bit was to make sure that the PCs always had an obvious clue to follow and to not include too many red herrings. I wrote up some notes for the mystery, which I can summarize here:
  1. Diane Behm had been found by accident when Lium, a collaborator, recognized her daughter Yulia as Yulia left a safehouse.
  2. Yulia had an inkling that she had been spotted by one of four people: Lium, a man in a distinctive hat; Renee, a blonde in a red dress; Ulvik, a known collaborator with an orc symbol on his cloak brooch; and Rath, a lamed kobold. That gave the PCs five obvious suspects to find and interrogate (it would be easy to clear Yulia, as Diane's assistant and other child would vouch that she loved her mother too much to betray her).
  3. The PCs would use their skills and the aid of their troops to find the other four suspects and interrogate them. Ulvik would claim to be a secret ally of Diane who had put a water canteen at the safehouse exit, a fact that could be verified by talking to Yulia or Diane's assistant. Rath would have left town and not to know anything about Yulia. Renee and Lium would lie with stories that contradicted Ulvik's; assuming that the PCs believed Ulvik, they would know that Renee and Lium were lying.
  4. I would also introduce Karl Luffare as a crime boss who was at the scene during the orc raid on the safehouse. Karl would be hard to find. He'd been the one who Lium told and who in turn told the orcs, and when the PCs started investigating, Karl would kidnap Diane Behm's grandchildren and hold them hostage.
  5. The investigation would end with the PCs confronting Luffare.
When I wrote it, it looked reasonably solid, though the bridge from finding out that Luffare was the villain to finding out that he had taken the children hostage was a little weak. As usual, things didn't work out exactly as I'd planned.

I knew that while this looked like a fairly straightforward plot to me, it had a bunch of moving parts and new characters in it. I created a map in MapTools that had tokens and descriptions for all the NPCs and hid most of them. That way, I could reveal them as the PCs found out about them, and hopefully having the tokens as a reference would mostly keep the PCs from getting too confused.

NPC reference image, showing all the NPCs encountered in the investigation

Fixating on the Villain Too Early

The opening sequence of the mystery went well: I introduced Yulia and Diane's assistant Brianna and established that Yulia was an entitled brat who blamed Trahaern for her mother's death, while Brianna was mildly helpful. Uhuk immediately put Yulia on the potential suspect list, and everyone else agreed to investigate the other potential subjects. But first, they wanted to do some hands-on investigating of their own.

They scoured the neighborhood of the safehouse for an informant. I pointed out that they were probably not the best investigators for a bad part of town, but they tried anyway. Greex found a kobold to talk to and Attivi and Sven found someone else. After a little friendly questioning, I was improvising answers. They got a little more information on the suspects, including the detail that Rath was routinely beaten by orcs and probably wouldn't talk to them willingly, but they also got the detail that Luffare had been at the scene of the raid. Which was a good detail, as it established him as another potential suspect, but then I added the detail that the orcs had paid him off. Which was certainly too much information too early, and the PCs immediately fixated on him and I had to do some work to get them to investigate the other suspects.

PCs Cheat, but Don't Use Their Resources

I eventually pointed out the PCs could search for multiple people at a time, but they only had a few people with Streetwise or other skills useful for finding people so that wasn't true. They were also kind of reluctant or forgetful and didn't really take advantage of the literal army of people they had access to, which would have improved the odds of finding people. And when they heard that Rath left town, they didn't make any effort to track him down, which I thought was a little weird because Sven had a flying horse that could have overtaken a limping kobold on foot in less than an hour.

With a little prompting, the PCs found Lium and Ulvik and brought them in for questioning.

One thing that Sven did have was a helmet of mind reading. Mind-reading is one of those abilities that destroys suspense in mysteries, and the usual solution in role-playing games is to cripple mind-reading. I decided not to do that, and it meant that it was easy to verify that Ulvik was truthful when they finally questioned him: Sven read his mind and his surface thoughts matched what he was saying. Over time, I managed to find ways of expressing NPC's surface thoughts so that Sven's mind-reading was useful but not overwhelming, but at first, it did a good job of destroying the suspense of the mystery. A little annoying, but I think it would be more annoying to say to a player "your character spent resources on a powerful ability that I won't let you use because it ruins my planned plot."

With Ulvik's reliability unquestioned, it was pretty obvious that Lium was lying. Lium was detained. He tried to send a message to Luffare, but the PCs did a pretty good job of cutting that off - and of course, a clumsily worded message was pretty suspicious, too. Lium eventually got boxed in enough that the PCs got an confession from him: he had spotted Yulia by luck, told Luffare, and Luffare passed the information onto the orcs.

The PCs had solved the important parts of the mystery. Unfortunately, at this point I realized I hadn't really established a way to get from "Luffare and Lium are clearly guilty" to "And we know where Luffare is." I improvised by having Brianna want to go back and check on Diane Behm's sick grandkids, who Luffare was holding hostage at this point.

Solving Problems with Magic

When the PCs escorted Brianna to the hovel where the grandkids were still in hiding, they spotted that the door had been forced and sloppily replaced on its hinges. They sent Brianna back (and Greex retreated to a space a couple of blocks over to watch everyone's back because he is a serious coward) and Ariana pushed the door open.

Attivi puts almost everyone to sleep, and Trahaern dispatches two
goons by slamming them into walls with the shockwave of his
magic halberd.
Luffare and his brother had knives to the grandkids' throats, and other goons were holding Behm's daughter-in-law and her maid hostage. Ariana immediately offered herself up as  a hostage, while Uhuk started looking things up in Sorcery and Powers to determine if Attivi could modify his existing single-target sleep spell to take out a room. I pointed out that even the most quietly cast spell would trigger the villains' Waits, but Ariana and Sven worked to try to distract the villains.

Ariana took off most of her armor and went into the room. As she was swapping places with the granddaughter and Sven was trying to be distracting with Fast-Talk, Attivi cast his spell. Two of the hostage takers were too distracted to stab their victims immediately and both succumbed to the spell. Ariana and the maid took glancing blows to their necks (which Ariana could trivially heal with her healing prayers). Sven and Trahaern charged into the room, using their powerful magic weapons to slam the remaining goons into the walls. In literally seconds, the situation was resolved. It was a very impressive show of force by Attivi, who generally doesn't do much and in this situation took out 5 goons by himself.

Appointing a New Count

Kevin had asked if I had meant to set up a succession crisis: Diane Behm was survived by an adult daughter, a minor adopted son, and minor grandchildren of both sexes through her now deceased elder son. I hadn't, but I didn't want to lock the PCs into any particular pattern of inheritance either. All of Diane's family had issues, but if the PCs wanted to go with primogeniture or agnatic inheritance or whatever then they had that option. None of the options were particularly great options, but they had options.

As Yulia was an entitled brat who had already expressed her intent to work against them in Council, they rejected her. There was a brief discussion of appointing one of the children, but they decided that would mean a regency and it made more sense to just appoint any potential regent as Count. As Brianna was the only trustworthy and mildly competent person they'd dealt with in Grimstut, so she got the job.

Mopping Up

Trahaern took the army north at this point, heading for the Menkgu border. The plan was to work counterclockwise through the remaining orc forces with parts of the main army. The rest of the main army would be left behind to retrain in July so that a huge, professional, and skilled army could move into the forests and mountains of Zerniless in August (and face the 10,000 strong Orc legion they suspected was between them and their potential allies in the Fae Court). Meanwhile, the direct team took the Flying Boat and beat up a bunch of orcs in isolated garrisons, increasing Resistance control of Hanist.

Trahaern advances the main army in blue;
the direct action team moves in light blue;
Orcs advance in red.
This worked ideally, but there were some minor complications. A group of orcs, survivors of the Battle of Ravenrock Bridge, made a night attack on some Resistance militia west of Ravenrock. The orcs were planning on linking up with other survivors that had retreated to Berger. Unfortunately, they had launched their break-out at the worst time, just as the main army was marching up the road to Berger. A quick forced march and the army caught the orcs napping after their battle. Resistance scouts then reported that the Berger orcs had marched south, so Trahaern took the army north, dispersed those orcs, and went ahead and crossed the bridge to Berger and assaulted the citadel there. Trahaern's diminished army still had over 1000 troops in it, including pegasii and miners, and they trounced the remaining 100 orcs of the garrison pretty heavily.

The other minor complication was that while the direct action team could successfully smash a bunch of orcs in a castle, they couldn't hold the castle or even arrange for the local Resistance to take it. Instead, they threw out the orcs and left the castles abandoned. In the areas where there were no other orcs to do anything about it, this strategy worked fine, but the orcs of the Zerniless eventually moved down to investigate and reoccupied a castle in the northeast.

We ended the session there, with the PCs receiving word that Lubasser had been retaken and Trahaern's army taking a break in preparation for dealing with 600 orcs that were massing in Menkgu.

Review of Play

This was a very different session from most of them, obviously. I had never really run a murder mystery with the online group before, so it was great that I got to justify my purchase of GURPS Mysteries. There was also an excellent balance of role-playing, individual PC action, and Mass Combat: the PCs got to talk and complain about the villains, use their skills to find them, and then fight several small battles to clear out the orcs.

The mystery could have been stronger. I shouldn't have made Luffare such a focus so early, and I should have plotted a better transition from "Luffare is the villain!" to "Luffare has taken hostages!" It worked out, but it would have been a lot more enjoyable had I plotted it just a little better.

What Next?

The next session is going to consist of people reacting to events. The PCs have reached some orcs that are a little less lazy than some of the others they've dealt with, and those orcs are going things like retaking abandoned castles. The PCs are going to react to that, and the orcs are going to respond to what the PCs do. There may be some surprises here and there, but I that's mostly what's going to happen.

I'm working on some notes for a microdungeon in Venrike, but I don't think that's going to show up next session. I also have some notes for a long-awaited role-playing scene where a couple of common soldiers react to the rumors that Nayla is a demi-goddess, but that keeps getting pushed off in favor of other things.

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