Some years ago, my husband Edmund created an ensemble cast for the role-playing game Bloodshadows. The premise of the game. which runs on West End Games’ Masterbook system (almost identical to their TORG and Shatterzone games) is a world that combines hard-boiled detective stories, pulp adventure and dark fantasy.
Tough detectives in weathered trenchcoats swap biting comments with vampires in evening gowns. Humans walk down dark streets side by side with demonic breeds and long-dead ghouls. And death — or Undeath — waits around every corner.
The cast which Edmund created revolves around Damon Sainte, P.I. down on his luck, and ten of his friends and allies. The goal was to have the regular cast of a book or television series and be able to run pick-up games with whatever players available, providing each player with ample choice of characters every episode. In the past I have played Big Dan the burnt-out gun mage, Ubaid the talking cat ex-familiar (and possibly ex-god), etc.
Yesterday, Edmund ran a game for our friend Maureen and I; Maureen played Cat the former pit fighter who now owns the casino above which Damon has his office and sleeping quarters, and for the first time I played Damon Sainte himself. We had a fun time; here is a summary of the episode.
Late in the night towards closing time for the Cat’s Claw Casino, Cat was invited to visit her patron, Aloysius Jones. He explained that he wanted a certain cop neutralized — scared off, blackmailed, killed, removed, he didn’t care how — from his path. Jones described the Sentinel, officer Roderick Hunter, as a bent cop, trouble-maker, and suspected leader of the Cult of the Lidless Eye. The cult was aligned with the faction of Order, and was becoming inconvenient to Jones’ own faction, the Cult of the Reflected Word, aligned with Chaos and the biggest cult in Galitia.
However, Jones did not want to be tied to anything that happened to Hunter, and so didn’t want Cat herself to take the lead on this, as she was known as his protégée and sorcery student. He asked Cat to convince Damon Sainte to take the case, pointing out that Damon was not known for his love of cults since one — still unidentified — had killed his family. All Cat had to do was talk Damon into handling Hunter, and discreetly assisting him to make sure the job got done.
At Cat’s request, Damon checked with his contacts in the constabulary force and found out that none of the other Sentinels liked Hunter, though of course they still closed ranks around one of theirs. However, his superiors had stopped giving him any partners after he had gone through four in his first year, all of them dying in unclear circumstances. He was now patrolling the Essler District on his own on the day shift, and was recognizable from his white cowboy hat! (We didn’t really know where cowboys would be found in Marl, the world of Bloodshadows, but we rolled with it.)
A bit of investigation revealed that the four deceased partners had been generally good cops, and had all been found killed in the slums of the Frenzy District during their off-duty hours. Though other cops didn’t like to talk about Hunter — they referred to him as “Dead Man Walking” — he seemed to manage to look squeaky clean. Of the Cult of the Lidless Eye, little was known except that it met in Frenzy as well, and seemed composed almost entirely of cops.
Next, Damon arranged to observe Hunter on patrol; he seemed to be well-liked by the neighbourhood folks, and refused to take even small bribes or favours — something unusual for a Sentinel. At the end of Hunter’s shift, Damon followed him home, making no effort to hide himself. After a quick look at the neighbourhood, Damon rang the bell and was immediately greeted by Officer Hunter.
Damon went for the straight dope and asked Hunter why he had so many live enemies and so many dead partners. After a bit of verbal sparring, Hunter said that he was dedicated to cleaning up Galitia from crime and corruption. The Cult of the Lidless Eye worshipped Watchona, goddess of Justice; it met in Frenzy and cleaned up the streets since the Sentinels did not patrol the district. When Damon asked how he could patrol all day in the Essler District and all night in Frenzy, Hunter said one of the benefits Watchona gave her followers was to pre-empt the need for sleep. Damon was skeptical this this was a perk and not a curse. Hunter offered Damon some religious tracts, and the skeptical P.I. gave him his business card in exchange — along with a warning not to harm any innocents.
Damon went back to the Cat’s Claw to tell Cat about his progress but warned her that Hunter didn’t look dirty so far. They decided that they needed to have a look at the Cult’s doings in Frenzy, so the next night Damon sprinkled himself with booze (resisting the temptation to drink any) and joined other bums on the skids in Galitia’s worst district to ask some questions; Cat, too conspicuous to pass for a denizen, was to come and retrieve him as a drunk.
Damon chatted with a toothless vampire who bemoaned how the White Hats — all Watchona cultists wore some sort of white hat and white robes — had pulled his teeth and destroyed his shapeshifting powers so that he now had to beg for blood. As agreed, Cat came to fetch Damon and “take him home”, feigning anger. They then looked around the slums until they found some White Hats patrolling and observed them for a while. When some White Hats spotted them and started to approach in menacing fashion, Cat and Damon changed their act to “upstanding citizens.” The cultists questioned them, but did not rough them up — somewhat to Cat’s chagrin.
Damon and Cat decided to follow the cultists openly, and observed them rounding up suspects. They finally ran into Roderick Hunter and questioned him; he said the men caught were criminals and would be offered as sacrifices to Watchona at the ritual that closed the evening’s hunt. If they were guilty, Watchona would accept the sacrifice. More skeptical than ever, Damon and Cat asked whether the goddess had ever refused a sacrifice and of course, Hunter said she had not but that was because of the great care they took in culling the guilty.
Hunter envisioned converting all of Frenzy by cleaning up the district and making it liveable for ordinary people, then making inroads into the rest of Galitia. Watchona, it turned out, planned on winning the next God War. Questioned directly on the fate of his former partners, Hunter said that all four had joined the Cult of the Lidless Eye; three had been killed in attempting to capture criminals, and the fourth, Officer McMook (yeah, that name was my fault) had been sacrificed to Watchona for criminal negligence after causing the death of a six-year-old bystander.
Since the cult was headed to their meeting place for the ritual, Cat and Damon followed and observed this as well. Feeling her inclination towards Chaos, Hunter asked Cat to remain just outside the door… Three prisoners were sacrificed and indeed, apparently accepted as guilty by Watchona. During the ritual, Damon and Cat saw the shape of a female form over the bodies in the magic circle, faceless except for a single staring eye.
After the cultists had left — Hunter offering more tracts and inviting Damon to join — the investigators examined the bodies; they looked like they had lived on the streets of Frenzy for a while and, from tattoos and markings, one looked like a burnt-out alchemist and the other a wizard; the third remained unidentified. Damon took their fingerprints on the back of some of his business cards using ink from a pen, and the partners headed back to the Cat’s Claw.
After some shut-eye, they headed out again: Cat to get more from Aloysius Jones, and Damon to check the victim’s prints against the Sentinels’ criminal records and to ask his friend Marycete — a scholar of the original God War — what she knew of Watchona. Two of the dead men turned out to indeed be burnt-out mages for which the Guilds had posted a bounty: a somnambulist who had put his family and entire neighbourhood into a permanent coma, and an alchemist; there was nothing on the third. With further investigation in Frenzy, however, Damon learned that he had partnered up with the somnambulist who would put victims into a trance so the third man could cut their throats.
From Marycete, he learned that, as he and Cat suspected, that Watchona was a “nice” god to worship in the early stages of the God War, but that when she gain too much ascendency in a society, eventually even minor offences became subject to harsh punishment — or death. But of course, the Frenzy District and the rest of Galitia were far from that point — there were plenty of murderers and arsonists around…
Meanwhile, Cat visited Aloysius Jones to try to coax more information or help from him. She told him that Damon seemed inclined to leave Hunter alone unless he could be discredited. Jones made it clear that Frenzy was “hot property”, a valuable resource as far as cults were concerned, and that his Cult of the Reflected Word did not want the Cult of the Lidless Eye making inroads. He casually discussed framing the latter for the death of Damon’s family, but assured Cat that he had had nothing to do with these deaths. Jones then suggested that Cat get Damon to report Hunter for the killing of his partner, Officer McMook, to the Chief of Police since he had some contacts in the Department; or at least get Hunter to admit to it in front of the brass or a reporter.
Cat tried to convince Damon to do so, but the P.I. was inclined to stay out of it; he didn’t buy Cat’s argument that the cult’s transition to prosecuting minor crimes was imminent. Still, he wanted to shed light on McMook’s execution so he went back to talk to Hunter and ask him to report himself for the death. Damon was not convinced that McMook’s kill had been “righteous”: McMook, it transpired, had teleported a child out of his way while pursuing a criminal, but had been careless and she had been teleported into a wall. McMook had admitted that, at the time, he simply had not cared and had not taken the time to check on the child’s safety.
Damon was unconvinced that such a split-second decision merited the death penalty; besides, he pointed out, Hunter himself had chosen his followers so he was responsible for their actions. Hunter pointed out that the sacrifice must have been correct since Watchona had accepted it, which clearly annoyed Damon. The P.I. asked Hunter how he would know if his goddess was indiscriminate and accepted the sacrifice of innocents, or even was impersonated by another god.
Hunter decided to test the theory by offering himself at that evening’s ritual, in penance for McMook’s death. If he survived, he said, he would then report himself to the Sentinels. Cat and Damon were invited to come and witness the ceremony.
That night on the third floor of an abandoned building in Frenzy, Hunter laid down in the ritual circle and the chanting began. But something was different; the air shimmered above, and Cat and Damon’s hackles rose. Suddenly, large tentacles came down from a dimensional rift above the cultists, grabbing at them and pulling them towards a central chitinous beak. Reflexively drawing his service weapon, Hunter fired straight up.
Cat, from her position just outside the door, also heard the building’s front door open and several people start up the stairs, but had no time to spare for the newcomers; calling on the arcane powers she had been learning from Aloysius Jones, she unleashed a bolt of lightning and struck at the tentacles. Despite the solid hit that would have wounded or killed a man, the creature from beyond barely registered the damage. Damon, pulling out his Gelvash Special .38 revolver, moved in to get a better shot.
Alternating between cuts with her enchanted dagger and more lightning spells, Cat turned into a hurricane of fury. Damon ducked tentacles and pulled cultists out of the way, distracting the creature.
Then for a strange moment, everything seem to stop and time froze for the two investigators; a short, bald, one-eyed creature sauntered into the room and introduced himself as Bogdath the Trickster God. Cat and Damon were paralysed, only able to move in response to Bogdath. He said he was both known as a god of Chaos as Bogdath, and of Order as Witchona but really belonged to a third faction, the Oathbreakers. (Unfortunately, it seemed clear that only Damon and Cat could see and hear him.) He told them that the Cultists of the Lidless Eyes were his, but neither the tentacled creature from another dimension nor what was “going on downstairs” were. He asked the two of them to consider joining forces with him, then vanished.
Time resumed its normal course and Cat, seizing all the arcane energy floating around, channelled a spectacular bolt of energy that fried the monster and sent pieces of interdimensional calamari flying everywhere! The cultists, led by Hunter, immediately picked themselves up and ran downstairs to face another group from a different cult. Although none of the latter survived, Damon had time to recognize some symbols he had seen before on his family’s murderers…
In the aftermath the next day, Hunter turned himself in for McMook’s death. Although he had to turn in his badge and gun, he was eventually allowed to walk away and, for the moment, apparently discredited enough to satisfy Aloysius Jones.
[I actually skipped, merged, or condensed some scenes a bit because it was quite a long game with a lot of investigation.]