Werewolves and White Elephants
This story begins around Christmas many years ago. I'd been invited to a white elephant party, and had hemmed and hawed over whether or not I was going to attend. I decided to come at the last minute, and since I had neither the spare cash for a gift, or the time to pick something up, I put an I.O.U. for a one-shot game in an envelope. Any system the recipient wanted a one-shot in that I had access to, and could reasonably run, I would do.
|The rabbit hole went pretty far down on that request.|
The guy who wound up with my white elephant gift (let's call him Geoff) really wanted to play a Werewolf: The Forsaken game. I was pretty solid on my new World of Darkness lore, even though werewolf wasn't one I'd delved too deeply into. I asked him if he was sure, and told him all right, I'd have something ready to run in a month. He got a handful of players together, and I started the conversation rolling on who they were, and what was befalling them.
It bears mentioning that I tend to emphasize the dark parts of the World of Darkness when I run a game. Not that awful, heinous things are always happening to PCs or their close friends (because graphic depictions of torture, sexual assault, etc. are not something I would inflict on my players, and they're crass from a storytelling perspective), but rather that the world is threadbare and desperate. The greedy are greedier, the needy are needier, and you should take nothing at face value. There are mysteries within conspiracies, and you should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
|Starting off on a positive note here!|
With that said, the handful of players put together their characters. They had most of the moon signs, and a pretty solid smattering of the tribes. No one had requested any crazy magic items or out-there gifts or merits, so I didn't have to have any debates with anyone. And, as I requested, everyone put themselves in a pack. And Geoff was the alpha. mostly because he was the one who'd requested the game, and because he was the one with the most system mastery.
I did something else, as well. I gave the players free dots in Allies and Mentor, attaching them all to important NPCs and working those connections into their backstories. Part of this was for my convenience as a storyteller, but another part of it was more insidious. More on that later.
So, this pack received a call from a highly-placed ally in New York City. An Iron Master alpha, he's known as the Iron Wolf. Partly for his refusal to back down, but also because he's the head of a major firearms company who does custom work for supernatural clients. Heavily involved in the city's politics, there is a small crisis going on at the moment. A crisis he wants the PCs to come and help with, since they owe him a favor for setting them up on their own plot of land upstate. As hooks go, it was pretty standard.
Into The Belly of The Beast
The pack got their gear, and headed into the big city. Geoff, who had taken a merit that let him see the spirit world with one eye and the material world with the other, chose to leave this ability active at all times. I asked him if he was sure. When he said yes, I described the decaying nature of the spirits as they headed into the city. The way everything became hard-edged, and feral, made dirty and harsh by its proximity to the pounding heart of the Big Apple. And then, as they got into the city proper, Geoff saw there was a colossal hole rent in the spiritual realm over the island of Manhattan. A swirling vortex where something terrible had torn the fabric of reality, leaving a gaping wound in the sky.
That's enough to leave anyone a little shook up. He decided to turn the merit off at that point... at least for a bit.
The pack parked at the Iron Wolf's HQ, and were met by one of his lieutenants. A warmaster who'd trained one of the pack's hitters, Ivan Ivanovich was known to most simply as the Black Russian. He ushered the pack up, and they were given the task they were being asked to complete.
|All right yuse mugs, it's exposition time!|
About a week ago, there had been a meeting arranged between some of the Iron Wolf's pack, and one of the local vampires; an old Dark Ages warlord named Michael Thorsson who held relentless grip on parts of the city. There was an uneasy peace, and the goal of the meeting was to make sure that peace held. As a show of good faith, they'd even met on the vampire's turf. No one who went to the meeting had come back, though. Thorsson said they'd never showed, and that he had no idea what had happened to them.
The party's job was to go, and independently investigate the incident. To find what had happened to the missing werewolves, and to get the facts without bias. Major players were dealing with the incident that led to the spiritual tear in the fabric of the world next door, so what would usually be a matter of great importance was a little lower on the priority ladder right then. The Iron Wolf gave the pack encrypted phones to contact him with, should they find something, and he sent another of his betas with them to act as a guide to the city should they need someone to show them around.
So... What Do?
When I'd been asked to run a werewolf game, I made sure to open up the world as much as possible. If the pack started running data searches on key figures in the city, I had dossiers prepared. If they wanted to go to Thorsson's nightclub where he held court and arrange a meeting, I had the stats for his ghouls, and the man himself, fully prepped. If they wanted to reach out to their Allies or Mentors for aid, I knew what would happen. If they tried to contact other werewolves in New York, I had them drawn up. If they went off the tracks entirely and tried to contact other vampires, changelings, or the mage community, I had that prepped, too.
In short, I had a huge mental map with all the major players, creatures, potential encounters, and everything in it. I had prepared for everything... except what actually happened.
|So... what do you do?|
I asked the pack what they did. The players looked at Geoff. Because while he may have had the most knowledge of the game mechanics, it didn't seem he really had any idea how to go about investigating such an open-ended plot. After several, long moments of silence he suggested they go to the warehouse where the meeting was supposed to happen, and sniff around?
A logical course of action. I said sure, they could find it no problem. So the pack headed out to the waterfront, took on their wolf shape, and did a walk around the block. They found a chain link fence with razor wire, half a dozen guards inside, and two or three trying and failing to be inconspicuous around the block. Geoff even turned his merit back on to glance into the spirit world. Because his initial plan was to simply phase out of one world, sneak in, and then push back into the material realm.
What he saw was that the fence, on the spirit side, was a series of pikes with bloody, moaning heads atop them. They felt potent, and wrong, but not dangerous. The sight of opposition on the other side (especially opposition that wasn't from the werewolf purview and which was an unknown factor) stopped the initial plan cold. Even though the heads did nothing but act as a spiritual alarm, and they could have been avoided through the proper use of gifts, or through properly applied violence.
Instead, the pack decided to bluff its way in. A task that was awkward, stilted, and which resulted in them totally blowing their cover. The guard, knowing something was up, agreed to let them in with a smile. As soon as the pack was inside the warehouse, though, they heard a huge bar being thrown over it, trapping them inside. The clock's ticking, and someone doesn't want them to get out. Of course, they were where they wanted to be.
Blood and Secret Tunnels
Figuring that they may as well do what they came there to do, the pack puts its wolf skins back on, and starts sniffing around. They smelled blood right away, and it definitely belonged to other werewolves. Some high successes later, and they found a secret tunnel that looks like it goes down into an old Prohibition smuggling run. Just as they open it up, they heard several SUVs pull up outside. They smell sweat, fear, and a lot of gun oil. Nothing they couldn't actually have dealt with (it seemed the players continually forgot they were werewolves, and thus top of the food chain in most circumstances), but they decided to scamper down the hole into darkness below.
|It's okay... I have a plan for this!|
Once they're down the hole, the pack hears the nervous voices of a dozen gunmen up above. No one was willing to go down after them, so they closed the door, locked it from above, and muttered that they'll catch them on the other side. Again, this is a full pack of werewolves... a wooden door with a deadbolt wouldn't stop them from waiting a while, and then busting up through the floor if they chose to. But they decided, instead, to follow the blood trail that continued on in the tunnel. Not only that, but they find the tunnel was stamped with Thorsson's sigil, marking it as his territory. So far, so expected.
At least until the blood trail goes off one way, and the vampire ganglord's mark goes off another way. The pack decided to follow their noses, and they found a bizarre scene. A dozen piles of ash and charred bone, some with scraps of cloth in them, filled the hallway. The ash smells corrupt, and rotten, but there's also a strong smell of ozone in the area. It is quite unnatural, and unpleasant. They also found a misshapen skull with elongated fangs. And, in the middle of it all, a severed arm that definitely belonged to one of the missing werewolves. On the arm is a watch, which Geoff correctly identified as an item that captures a scene in time for future study. Not only that, but the watch currently has a scene in it. A scene that could be replayed by any of them to get some insight into what, exactly, this dead werewolf had seen. Was it evidence that Thorsson had betrayed them? A shot of the murderers? A final message for those who eventually found him?
Well, they never knew. Because upon finding this clue they nodded, said, "Yep, that's a clue all right," then put it in their pocket and never looked at it.
Giving Some Direction
It was around this point that I realized the pack was looking for more in the way of direction from me. So I decided to pull a lever I'd put in place for just such a situation, and had one of their phones ring. While underground. From an unrecognized number. Something that I'd made very clear when I handed the devices out wasn't possible. Geoff answered, and a voice his character has never heard before told him specifically that the pack is in danger. Down the tunnel is a vault door. Go through it, and run for the stairs. Do not linger, and do not go back the way they came. Do not trust the Iron Wolf, he is telling you lies.
|Maybe that will get things going, yes?|
The pack found the vault door, sure enough, and went through it into an abandoned train station. It's clearly been turned into someone's living space. It reeked with an unnatural aroma, which was very similar to what was in the tunnel near all the dead vampires. Rather than bolting for the stairs, as the mysterious called suggested they do, everyone took their time. They weren't being stealthy, mind you, they were just walking slowly. So, since they chose to ignore the warning they were given, that was when the lights go out. Except for a figure walking toward them. A hulking man, with the unkempt beard and matted hair of a hobo. Geoff, who still had his merit on from the fence, also sees the burning fire within him. A white, unnatural light that sparks and snaps from his steel teeth, down through mismatched limbs that each carry a unique corruption all their own.
When presented with such a terror, what does the pack do? Make occult checks to understand what the hell they're looking at? Transform and fight their way past him? Tuck tail and book it for the stairs, which are clearly in sight? Parley, and hope that the creature is more civilized than it looks?
Well, mostly they just sat and stared. Finally the NPC tried to talk to the thing, and rolled just well enough that it decided to leave them be. Then the spook house got rolling again, and they ran up the stairs to street level. Anticlimactic, but hey, I could be more specific if that was what it took.
The Conspiracy Explained
Geoff's phone rang again, and the same mysterious voice told him he was being followed. The pack was given confusing directions that had them double-back several times, until finally they found themselves in front of a steel-reinforced door in a blind back alley. The door opened, and a figure stood in the arch. Skinny, red-eyed, and more than a little mad, he stared at them and gave them a small flash of his fangs. He smelled like the other things, and there was no mistaking the vampire. He hung up the phone, and shuffled back inside, beckoning the pack to follow him.
|Which they do... with neither question, nor violence.|
Anathema is the creature's name, and he's been nursing one of the werewolves who escaped the slaughter in the tunnel. She was alive, mostly insensate, and hadn't so much as been pricked by the nosferatu's fangs. He went back to organizing his red web of conspiracies, speaking all the while. He told Geoff again not to trust the Iron Wolf. He's been engaged in some kind of shady deals, and likely set up the members of his pack who went to the meeting. The goal was to kill them, but Anathema isn't sure why. To start a war with Thorsson? To garner sympathy from the other packs in the city who have had tense relationships with him? Or perhaps it's related to the mage sanctum that was defiled, and the wound it left behind. He doesn't know, but his final warnings to the pack were not to trust their benefactor, and to not come back to this place again.
Then he shut the door in their face.
So What Did They Do?
After being told repeatedly not to trust the Iron Wolf, and with the surviving werewolf mewling and moaning not to take her back to him (and clearly looking distrustful of the beta who was sent with as the party's "guide"), the first thing they do is call him up, and tell them they found a survivor.
|I planned for every eventuality... except this one...|
They call him up, and he sends a car to come get them. In the interim they don't question the surviving witness (the only one who has first-hand knowledge of what went down). They just wait patiently, get in the car, and ride back to the headquarters they were at earlier. They hand off the survivor, and never asked where she's being taken, or what they're planning on doing for or to her. Nor does anyone question why, as soon as they hand her over, she goes limp, as if she's resigned to her fate.
At that point they take the elevator upstairs, walk straight up to the Iron Wolf's desk, and give him a full run down of everything they saw and did. That's when Geoff took out the mystical watch he found, and clicks the button to review what was saved in it.
The watch held a scene of its owner spying on the Iron Wolf, and his beta, as they made a deal with a creature from the deepest, darkest parts of the spirit realm. Evidence that they gave their allegiance and aid to the sort of things they're supposed to be fighting against. Because this entity promised to give their children physical bodies (for those who don't know, werewolves are forbidden from mating in this setting because they give birth to ravenous spirit monsters... and these two essentially made a deal with a literal devil to keep having inbred werewolf babies).
Now getting the plot development they'd been given hours ago out of game, and revealing it right in front of what turns out to be the villain, no one knows what to do. Of course, the first thing the Iron Wolf does is pull a huge hand cannon out of his desk drawer, and start blasting away with silver rounds.
Then, finally, something happened.
Unfortunately, what happened was that the assassin who'd literally been following them the whole time (until they lost him by following the vampire's instructions, only to pick him back up again when they called the villain and told him where they were), burst in through the window behind them. While there were a lot of pack members, there weren't enough of them to deal with a gunslinger with silver hollow points before he took one of them down. They managed to destroy his body, only to realize that this was one of the spiritual abominations the Iron Wolf had created. And while they'd been distracted, the alpha was now opening the secret door to the shrine that anchored his wicked master in this place.
Wisely, they took to their heels.
In the elevator, the handful of remaining pack members find the Black Russian. He seems completely unfazed by the carnage, and the raw aura of evil emanating from his alpha's back room. When the pack demands he help them escape, he shrugs, and hits the button for the garage level. He plucks a set of car keys off the wall, and leads them to a van. Geoff demands to know why he's helping them. Ivan only shrugs and asks why he wouldn't help them. Despite being one of the lieutenants of this whole operation, and showing no surprise at anything he saw in his alpha's office, the pack just accepts that.
Then they ask Ivan to drive them back to Anathema's lair. A place he specifically told them not to return to.
They manage to remember the directions to get back, and they find the door unlocked. Bizarrely, though, the interior is empty except for a scrap of paper on the floor. All the filing cabinets, the webs of newspaper clippings, and banks of computers are completely gone. Instead of carefully sniffing around, Geoff walks in, and picks up the note. He has enough time to read the phrase, "I told you not to come back here," before the shaped charges go off, detonating the place.
Wounded and burned, the pack piles back into the van while Ivan leans on the hood smoking a cigarette and texting on his phone. They shout for him to drive. He nods, and hits the car lock button, before detonating the C-4 inside the van, and killing everyone inside.
There are several lessons to learn here. First, from a DMing perspective. Make absolutely sure that your players want (and are prepared for) the kind of game you're presenting to them. Later review made it clear to me that, though the players had asked for a Forsaken game, that didn't necessarily mean they wanted a game that was an open-world sandbox, that involved tracking down and solving conspiracies, or which was filled with darkness and betrayal. Those were things I assumed were part-and-parcel to being a World of Darkness game, and that assumption was likely what led to so many player freezes when they were presented with choices, and warnings. What I should have done was conduct a survey asking them what sorts of plots, themes, and roles they would most like to see in the game, and the kind of feel they wanted.
With that said, when NPCs expressly tell you that you're walking into a trap, don't be surprised when it blows up in your face.
That's all for this week's Table Talk. Hopefully the mistakes I made as a DM, and the mistakes my players made in this scenario, illuminate what not to do for some folks. If you're interested in more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to put together fun skits, advice, and world building videos. If you want to stay on top of my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click the following like to Buy Me A Coffee.