Monday, August 24, 2015

Someone Banish Grandma - An East Texas University One-Shot



Our First Guest Writer


Before you start reading, I'd like to give a very appreciative thank you to Living 4 Crits' first guest writer. The adventure summary that you are about to read (in just a few paragraphs) is by one of my players, my friend +Andrew Cady. We had a great game Thursday night, and Andrew's character (Heather the Journalism student) played a very important role. Besides, its only fitting to have a journalism major tell you what happened. 

Back in Session


In two weeks my regular, in-person gaming group will begin an East Texas University campaign. I've been back and forth on just which Savage Worlds setting I would be running this fall. After much conversation within our group, as well as some very constructive feedback on the Facebook and Google+ Savage Worlds Communities (you people are awesome, by the way), we settled on ETU.

Go Ravens!

I soon found myself facing a new dilemma. I was so excited about running ETU that I didn't want to wait two whole weeks before exploring Pinebox, Texas. Hoping to polish my horror skills, and give some of the new ETU game mechanics a try, I put out a call for players on Google+. A Savage Worlds One-Shot was in order.

The best thing about being a gamer in 2015 is that it is so easy to throw together a game on the fly and grab some players for a pick-up session. Adam, Alex, and Andrew were all on board for an evening of campy collegiate horror. Coming up with characters was simple, as the folks over at Pinnacle Entertainment Group offer pre-gen college students that you can find on their website or at DriveThruRPG. I just gave the players a list of the possible student archetypes, and they made their selections.

Adam chose the Fraternity Brother (Brody), Alex called the Activist (Chad Jennings), and after some back and forth on the event page, Andrew went with the Journalist (Heather).

The Challenge


Before I hand this blog post over to Andrew, I have to share the adventure writing methodology that I used for this adventure. When I first purchased East Texas University back in June of this year, I devoured the book in one evening. I found the setting charming, the tone moody yet playful, and the new game mechanics well crafted and finely tuned. ETU as a campaign setting perfectly matches the Savage Worlds mantra of "Fast, Furious, Fun."

But what impresses me most about East Texas University is the meticulously crafted Adventure Generator in the back of the setting book. Taking up thirteen of the book's ninety-six total pages, the Adventure Generator isn't just page filler. This is a tool. A powerful tool that give the game master (or "Dean" as they are called in ETU) the ability to throw together an adventure with little or no effort. 

Using the Adventure Generator is a breeze. The Dean starts by drawing regular playing cards for five categories:

  • Who
  • What
  • Why
  • Where
  • Complication

Depending on the card and suit, the results are random. Drawing an "8" for "Who" means that the antagonist is a Scientist. Perhaps a crazy visiting professor of temporal dynamics is causing hell in Pinebox. Drawing an "Ace" for "Why" yields an accident. Maybe that visiting professor is actually from the future, and was sent back in time to East Texas University to change history. 

You get the idea.

Some results require more cards be drawn from additional random tables. A list of possible Pinebox Environs, Supernatural Creatures, and Victims are just some of whats in store. 

I mentioned a challenge, so here it is: 

To play this particular one-shot, I would use the Adventure Generator and draw cards accordingly. After reviewing the results, I would time myself and allow only ten minutes to create a two hour session. So that I wouldn't cheat, I blocked off 8:20pm to 8:30pm on Thursday.

8:30pm was our start time, so I had to be on top of my game!

Before I give you all of the behind the scenes from the adventure, I'm going to hand this off to Andrew. After reading Heather the Journalist's story, I'll share a breakdown of what I drew, and how I made some of the decisions on the fly. 



Heather's Story (Written by Heather… I mean +Andrew Cady


Hello Interwebs. 

I know I normally blog about the food I eat, and the latest story I am investigating for the ETU newspaper, but today I really need to tell you what happened to me last Thursday. It’s taken me a few days to gather my thoughts (that and I had two final exams on Friday) but here I go. 

It all started a week ago when my (ex)friend Stacy told me of this really cute boy she knew who “would be just like totally perfect for you. You’ve, like, got to go out with him.” She said she thought the kid’s name was Brody Jennings but wasn’t quite sure. Usually I avoid blind dates, but after the Stan incident I figured what the hell. Besides there was this Italian Mom and Pop type restaurant I had heard about in Pinebox I wanted to try. I was going to blog about it here like usual. I told Stacy that I was free Thursday night, and I would gladly meet this boy at Sal’s Calabrian Summer for dinner at 6pm. She said she would make it happen.

Sal’s was a nice quant place. An old Duplex style house with one half converted into a restaurant. It sounds weird sure, but the place was decked out rather nice. Had the feel of eating in the home of an Italian family not really a restaurant. When I arrived there was two business-like gentlemen sitting at a table not eating; a thing which I thought was totally weird. (damn you Stacy your vocabulary is rubbing off into my writing) There was also a trio of Tri-Delts passing around their one brain-cell as they tried their best to study. (I swear one was holding her book upside down)

I was seated by the nice hostess and owner Sally Spanno at a nice romantic table for two, as I waited for my mystery man to arrive. That was when, an admittedly hunky, frat boy walked in wearing a HS Letterman jacket (seriously dude this is college). He was followed closely by a well-dressed guy, who was kinda cute, but had the look about him that screamed ‘overachieving pre-law student’. I immediately assumed the frat boy was my date, there was no way Stacy knew anyone in pre-law.

To my surprise they both walked over to my table and asked if I was Heather. Some very awkward moments followed. We all confirmed that Stacy did in fact set this up, and that the Frat boy’s name WAS Brody, but the Law-student’s name was Chad Jennings (yes he was Actually Pre-Law). Chad seemed particularly upset about his ruined evening, which brought the hostess Sally over to our table. 

On her way over though, I noticed she was being harassed by the Businessmen. They clearly wanted something from her, I assumed initially it was the food they were waiting on. Sally brushed them off and headed our way. She noticed the awkwardness of our situation and offered us a bigger table behind the two business men. We gladly accepted and sat down and started looking at the menu.

Chad’s rather put-off mood quickly changed when he saw broccoli rabe on the Menu. It was a dish I’ve never heard of (I’ll have to try someday and tell you all about it) but Chad said it was a traditional Italian dish his mother used to make back home. When Sally returned Chad ordered that, Brody and I opted for the escarole soup.

When Sally tried to return to the kitchen with our order, the businessmen accosted her again. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the threat of violence was clear. I decided to make a show of getting my camera out of my messenger bag and putting it on the table. Hoping that would dissuade the men.

They saw my camera and clearly were not happy. I got Brody to pose for a picture as I took the picture of the two men seen below.

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Sally was returning to our table with our drinks when one of the business men grabbed her by the arm. He said something like “No more games. We will have her back now!” That is when I noticed the man had a gun. I quickly started taking more pictures. (Seen below)

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Sally in turned pulled out a large glass flask she had under her clothing and threatened the man with it. Saying something like “She will protect me!” It was hard to hear because wind was blowing very hard as that freak storm I am sure you all remember had just blown in. Just then lightning struck near buy and the load crash of thunder seemed to propel events. Brodiyheroically charged the man with the gun, but he was pistol-whipped aside. The man then shot Sally in the side. She fell to the ground her glass bottle shattering on the floor, spreading ash everywhere.

That is when things got even weirder. The ash swirled around into the air forming the specter like image of an old lady. She flew at the man with the gun entering him through his eyes, nose, and mouth. Soon blood started to flow from his eyes and his nose. He started coughing and he fell to his knees. A moment later he was dead on the floor. 

Brody and Chad quickly subdued the other man, and I knocked him out with pepper spray. It was then that we remembered Sally, still laying on the ground in a growing pool of her own blood. I didn’t know what to do, but Chad quickly sprang into action. One would think the man was a med student not pre-law, the way he handled Sally’s gunshot wound. Using some alcohol from the bar as well as some napkins and bar implements, he was able to pry out the bullet, and stop the bleeding as well as administer some treatments for shock. It was impressive work. 

Sounds of pots and pans were soon coming from the kitchen, and I grabbed my camera and Brody to investigate. There I saw a pot on the stove, stirring itself, the flame around its edges and unnatural blue. The apparition of an old lady appeared to us. She called herself Grandma, and told us our soup would be done shortly. The being said she wanted to talk to me, and me alone and told me to send Brody away. I complied with her request. 

It turns out Grandma was looking for a host someone to possess so that she could live again. Luckily she did not have me in mind for this task, but instead wanted Joy, one of the sorority girls I recognized when I came in. They were still at their table mindlessly chatting and studying away, oblivious to the world around them. I of course agreed to the task, one does not argue with a ghost looking for a host less you become it. Grandma told me to come back in a few, our soup would be ready then.

I went back to Brody and Chad and told them what this ghost thing wanted. Chad was not about to sacrifice someone else so that and old lady could live again. He soon pulled up a banishment ritual on his phone, from some witchcraft website he knew about, and Brody remembered he had an old Ouija board in the back of his truck from a frat party. Chad grabbed some bar-salt and started drawing symbols on the floor. While Brody ran out to his truck the get the board game.

The weather was brutal, hail stones the size of golf balls, but this big dumb looking jock was surprisingly nimble. Using the light of the phone to guide his way he dodged hail stone after hailstone with grace and ease. His return trip was not quite as graceful, but he was trying to keep this cardboard gameboard from being destroyed by the elements.

Once he was back inside Chad had the ritual all set-up. There was just one minor snag. The ritual required the performer to have a strong connection with the being you were trying to banish. You had to imbibe something that they loved in order to draw them out. The site said drink worked best for flowing liquid had more magical energy than solid food. We however didn’t know what Grandma even liked. I was of course sent to find out.

Grandma was nice and polite and super creepy as I got her talking about her youth and her favorite drinks. I talked to her about getting Joy liquored up, to make Grandma’s dominance after the possession an easier thing. It turns out Grandma used sneak sips of the cooking wine her mother used when they cooked together in her youth. During that time she developed a taste for Chablis and drinking it always reminded her of those great times in the kitchen. That discovered, Grandma handed me a bowl of soup and insisted I taste it. I was reluctant. Taking food from the dead never seems to go well. But she was rather insistent, and getting on the bad side of an incorporeal being was not on my to-do list this evening. My fears however, were completely justified. The soup was wretched. Mostly rotten and foul. It took tremendous fortitude on my part not to wretch right there in front of the apparition.

I returned to the group grabbing a bottle of Chablis from near the bar, and telling them one of use needed to drink this. The one doing to ritual. Brodi Volunteered and chugged the cooking wine in true frat fashion. We then started the ritual. Things were going well, until Chad realized a small detail we had not yet acquired; Grandma’s real first name. Sally did not know the answer, Grandma had been dead for some time, and she always just called her Grandma. I quickly opened up my Ancestry.web account on my phone and after a few minutes search found that Grandma was actually named Lucile, or was it Lucille. There was two different spelling on immigration documents. We had to get it right on the Ouija board or we risked pulling in the wrong spirit. Brodi made a wild guess. And guessed right. The ritual complete we heard screaming from the kitchen. Then the ghostly image of Grandma, was being sucked through the room into the empty Chablis bottle.

The weather dissipated then, and before we thought to leave the cops arrived. We hadn’t discussed what to tell them. Chad, being the “Truth will set you free” kind of activist, opted to tell them the truth. They quickly took him away. Brody and I stayed quiet and let Sally spin a story. 

I hear Sally has since skipped town. Pinebox Reality already has her place on the market. I hear they are bringing in a shrink from Austin to talk to Chad. Brody and I are getting together for "Study groups” now, trying to think of a way to get Chad out of lock-up. To be honest though, we actually spend most of the time making out. 

 What? He’s actually a really good kisser. 

(Maybe I should stay friends with Stacy after all.)




Behind the Screams


I'm not going to sugar coat my initial reaction after drawing cards for the Adventure Generator. I wasn't happy with the results. I felt like one of the chefs on "Chopped" getting handed a crazy basket of mystery ingredients. Here's how the cards fell:

  • Who: Antagonists are organized crime
  • What: Accident (requires draw on the Victim table)
  • Victim: Paranormal
  • Why: Secret
  • Where: Pinebox, local business
  • Complication: Terrible storm

The clock was ticking, and I'll admit that I panicked. I could easily work with two or three of these, but all of them at once made no sense at all. Sure, I could've cheated and just drawn different cards. No one would be the wiser. But I would know, and this was supposed to be a test. I was a "Dean" dammit! I was in'dean'structable, and I needed to let go of all my dean'ial...

I closed my eyes, and thought, "what would Dean Pelton do?"

Start small, I figured. Take care of the easy results.

"Where" and "Complication" actually worked together quite well. I would set the adventure in a local restaurant and have there be a terrible storm outside. The lightning, hail, and possible twister would force the players to stay inside the restaurant and help create a sense of claustrophobia. 

This was going to be a "bottle episode." 

The antagonists were a part of some kind of organized criminal activity. First I wrote down "Sopranos", and had the full intention of literally throwing Tony Soprano into the adventure. I scratched out Tony's name quickly, though. Despite my affinity for fun mash-ups, I believe that I sometimes use pop culture references as a crutch in my adventures. Sure they can be fun, but over reliance on fictional characters from TV and movies is lazy. I cold do better. 

So I came up with the Rogue Street Magician Mafia. I remember discussing David Blaine with a few relatives once, and someone mentioned that the only way he could do his magic was if he sold his soul to the devil. Well maybe the Rogue Street Magician Mafia (RSMM, because I love acronyms) were a collection of Las Vegas street performers who all sold their souls to demonic entities and collected weird paranormal artifacts.

But what kind of "paranormal" victim could succumb to an "accident", and how would this involve a "secret?" 

Three to go.

The restaurant would be a small Italian eatery in downtown Pinebox. Initially I was going to have the owner, Sally "Sal" Spanno, be a lycanthrope as the "secret" and "victim" all at once, but that didn't make much sense. I went back to the Adventure Generator and re-read the tables. The "secret" was supposed to involve forbidden knowledge. Perhaps Sally got all of her recipes from her dead grandmother, who was a trapped spirit kept within an urn or jar. This never came out during the game, but the RSMM had the same idea, and knew of the power the "Grandma Jar" had over chefs. They wanted the jar for themselves so that they could aid a fellow RSMM member who just happened to own a restaurant in Las Vegas. 

Probably over the top, but I was gonna go with it.

I was left with an accident that had to happen to the grandmother's spirit, and that part ended up being easy. At some point in the adventure I needed that jar to break, and unleash the spirit.

The players would have to deal with the gangsters, the spirit on the loose, and the storm outside. 

I wasn't sure how the adventure was going to start out, but Alex figured it out for me. There was some confusion about the start time, so Alex wasn't online at 8:30pm. I was looking across the screen at Adam and Andrew, and I decided to kick things off with just two players. Since this was Andrew's first time playing the opposite gender, I thought it would be fun to have his character meeting Adam's on a blind date.

And then Alex showed up.

What the heck, what if they were all meeting on a blind date? A friend of Heather accidentally set her up with both Brody and Chad on the same night. I am so lucky to have great players! Adam, Andrew, and Alex did a tremendous job roleplaying the opening scene. They were bickering with each other, and cursing their friend (Stacy) repeatedly. Adam made sure that his character was Facebooking, Tweeting, and Instagraming the entire sequence in game. 

#WorstDateEver

I loved how Alex had Chad ditch the date so quickly. Rather than talking to Heather, Chad started flirting with Sally. 

The combat sequence between the characters and the goons clearly demonstrated the challenges that regular college students would face in a fight. The RSMM gangsters came to the restaurant armed with pistols and extendable clubs, while no one in the party had a Fighting die higher than a d4. Furthermore, the best weapon the party wielded was Heather's pepper spray. When the thugs threatened Sally with a gun both Brody and Chad sprung into action, but failed in their initial attempts to grapple and disarm the "Dagger Brothers". 

The "accident" would take care of this. I decided to have one of the two goons shoot Sally, but this resulted in the urn breaking. Sally called upon her grandmother's scattered ashes to aid her, and granny was happy to comply. This took care of one of the goons, leaving the guy without a drawn gun for the party to defeat.

Most of what happened with "Grandma" was improv. I didn't want her to be overtly "evil", but I also knew that she wouldn't want to be trapped in an urn again. While the players bantered I started making up a ritual (we called it "lesser banishment") that the party would need to complete in order to trap Grandma. I wasn't sure if we'd get to use the ritual, and I was completely prepared for the players to comply with Grandma's request to take over the body of one of the study-group members. Lately my players have been pretty cruel.

As Heather's interactions with Grandma progressed, it became apparent that the players were going to go the route of "do-gooders." I needed to put some polish on that ritual, and had to make it more interesting than just a simple Smarts roll. I believe it was Alex's character Chad, that went on his iPhone to search for banishment rituals on a witchcraft website. Alex made the roll, and someone (I can't remember who!) remarked that the party would need some candles, chalk, and a ouija board.

Bingo!

I agreed with the players that "that" was exactly what they needed. Adam joked that Brody had a ouija board in his SUV. "For sure. You definitely have a ouija board in your SUV," I replied. 

Why not?

This of course led to Brody having to deal with the storm, hail, and oncoming tornado, which was a fun change up in the action.

I think my favorite part of the evening was how the ritual had to be cast. The one caveat that I added to the ritual was that a bottle of the spirit's favorite alcohol had to be consumed. Typically you'd have the braniac player character making the ritualism roll, but the party needed someone experienced at keg-stands to down that entire bottle of chablis. So we had Brody the frat boy casting the ritual over a chalk outline and some candles. Just a great moment.

One more admission. At a point in the ritual I told the players that they needed the correct spelling of Grandma's name. They found out online that it was Lucile, but it was spelled two ways. Sometimes Lucile, others Lucille, and I forced Adam to choose. He went with one "L" and I said the ritual succeeded.

Spoiler: that was just for tension... I was going to have it succeed either way. 


Parting Thoughts


I had a terrific evening on Thursday, and really enjoyed playing with this group. The game was funny when it needed to be, with just the right amount of tension. I really enjoyed role-playing Grandma, who I imagined was one part cookie baker, and one part serial killer. 

Adam, Alex, and Andrew, as always you are welcome at my table (virtual or in-person) anytime!

Do you own East Texas University? Have you tried using the Adventure Generator? How did it work for you? Have you used similar generators in other games? 

We'd love to hear your stories!