Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Actual Play Report: Dark Angel (1993)

More wizards should wear cravats.
Three weeks ago a group of Shadowrunners embarked on a ludicrous, metaplot spanning journey through published adventures, that began with the 4th edition iteration of Food Fight and will hopefully end with the Twilight Horizon or whatever the team's story arc seems to be heading for. I've decided to call the campaign Decades in Shadow, at least for tagging purposes (for the record, it took three sessions to cover two game days, so at the current rate I expect to be done in 21,900 weeks - or when the party gets bored of either Shadowrun or my GMing, in both cases long before that).

Last night we effectively completed Dark Angel, the first adventure in the campaign. There are a few plot threads hanging - more than the book assumes, really! - but the main story arc is complete. It took about three sessions. I think the book assumed that, or one more.

(I'd normally post the cover of the book here, but it's so inutterably hideous - the worst in Shadowrun history, I think - that you'll have to deal with some interior art...)

The following post is one giant spoiler.
Dark Angel follows the story of Jim Crull, AKA Dark Angel, an underground rocker beloved by "magicians, elves, Amerindians and haters of soulless cyber-culture." He recently died in murky circumstances, just after selling the rights to his music to Xanadu Studios. They claim to have recordings of his work. His girlfriend, Lili Ice - AKA Icelady - believes Xanadu Studios honcho Dynamo Blue was somehow involved in Dark Angel's death, and she wants to expose her so she can get rights back. 

Being an adventure from 1993, Dark Angel takes about eight times as long to explain all that.

Here's the twist. Jim's brother is an MCT high flyer called Edward Crull (because Shadowrun is all about nominative determinism, as much as Star Wars!). Getting promoted in MCT required swearing his loyalty, and that of his entire family, to Kat Akmura, a Yakuza underboss. When Dark Angel went his own way, Crull's world was thrown into jeopardy, and he acted against Dark Angel. Angel was kidnapped and forced to record an album on Akmura's private "dreadnought". And why not.

Legwork

Lili Ice - I just can't say "Icelady" with a straight face - provided some leads:
  • the Lone Star autopsy report
  • the record company
  • the BTL den where Angel died in mysterious circumstances
  • the Partyzone, where the band hang out
The team hacked Lone Star first and then went to the Partyzone (a permanent rave) to talk to the band, who had nicely well drawn personalities (and ludicrous, wonderful 80s fashion). I have to credit the writing of the mystery sequence: each area provided just enough new information to keep the pace building and keep the team guessing - but, also, specifically, to drastically escalate the level of background threat. Each place dropped hints of major Yakuza involvement, and when an attempt to trace a phone led back to a massively defended MCT node, the entire tone of the adventure seemed to change.

Heaven, the BTL den, saw the team negotiating with various low-lifes, a pair of trolls called Hack and Slash, and cyber-enhanced Yakuza spies. It also alerted the Crull to the team, launching an escalating sequence of ambushes which occurred at a slightly faster rate than information was coming in. In the event, I didn't get a chance to launch the nastiest assault of the adventure, but I can always reuse it later!

When I originally read Dark Angel I was a bit concerned about the lack of an obvious "smoking gun" clue to lead the party to Akmura, which was stupid - the team discovered the clues according to an investigation on their terms rather than the GMs, which is far better. One side effect of this was that they never actually went to the recording studio or confronted Dynamo Blue. It would have been fairly easy to set up a situation where that happened after Dark Angel's rescue, but i'm not sure the campaign needed it. 

A much larger segment of the adventure we missed out on was a direct conflict with Edward Crull, whose mansion and security forces get a long write-up. Again, the adventure didn't have any direct "smoking gun" (or wide-gauge railroad) to lead the party into a head-on collision with him or to engage in subterfuge involving some other people in his life. The thing is: Crull is still active with a grudge and the resources to pursue it. I can still use that material, and intend to!

Assault on the Shio-Zuchi

Errant the mage was pursuing the idea of finding Angel with spirits, and this eventually led them to a giant yacht which looked likely. Thin Lizzy the infiltatroll - a troll ninja, obviously - went to have a look, dodged the Torpedo Shark (I love having the opportunity to say things like "they have a motherf**king Torpedo Shark!) and boarded the ship. He was then confronted with the most prolonged run of extended good luck in my recent dice rolling history, as the mages - one of them wearing a cravat, aviator shades, a mustache and a third-eye tattoo - saw through his various disguise spells and a battle began. A swarm of troll martial artists - followers of Oni-Do, the Way of the Goblin - attacked him. Suffice it to say he only survived through the use of all his Edge...

The other players intervened. This was at about 10 in the morning, without any planning. The book, naturally, envisaged a nighttime assault in the style of a Bond movie. Instead we got a kind of a magical bumrush in which the hacker detonated the yacht's chaff launchers, alerting the entire city to the battle, and the mage summoned a terrifying spirit to cast Orgy, ending the battle in a daze of awful/wonderful double-entendres. The troll ninja stood down two wizards and three dice-poll 16 martial artists long enough for the cavalry to arrive. 

Thin Lizzy being an abnormally thin troll and a consummate martial art, I can't help but think of him having a physicality similar to Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Bruce Lee's Game of Death:


By the end, dozens of memory altering spells had been cast, Kat Akmura had been artfully blackmailed, and the Yakuza (somewhat) mollified. That brings me to one issue I had with the adventure. 

Dark Angel makes a big thing about Yakuza rules, and really, really wants the team to get permission from one of two senior Yakuza to whack Akmura. If Thin Lizzy had opted to jump off the boat and regroup, maybe the team would have gone to seek permission, but I doubt it. I don't think they really had much of a sense of who the other Yakuza were, which is partly my fault - but, really, the adventure didn't provide much. Moreover, the Oyabun's stated motives for supporting the team against Akmura rang false to me. I think they would have needed more context and in-game development to mean anything. 

Between avoiding Edward Crull, bypassing Dynamo Blue and missing out on the Yakuza sections, we basically missed out on about a third of the adventure and some of the more notable NPCs (along with most of the opportunities for the hacker to shine, for that matter). I don't actually think the writers would mind that - it was meant to have a branching plot, after all. The two senior Yakuza bosses both get long sections describing their legion of soldiers, wizards and ninjas, none of which really got used.

If I were to run Dark Angel again I might try to set up the different Yakuza bosses in advance with player related subplots or something similar. The problem with that approach is that i'm already doing something similar with Elven Fire. If every adventure needs a session of preparatory gaming just to introduce the players we won't ever get to the actual plot. That's really my main problem with Dark Angel, which was otherwise a varied, wild story with a lot of different threats to face. While the enemies were clearly in Bond villain/Pink Mohawk territory, the adventure provided for both approaches - actually, some of the biggest surprises and challenges would have afflicted a team that played things in a more subtle way than ours. 

From an "academic" perspective, its interesting to see how Shadowrun presented itself at the beginning of 2nd Edition. The Yakuza's identity isn't fixed yet, and the group are represented by an incoherent grab-bag of near-racist stereotypes drawn from martial arts films. Dark Angel's album is called Earthdawn. Everyone wears leather, except the trolls in martial arts outfits. ...and as for trolls: every villain seems to be able to rustle up 10 or 12 of them for disposable muscle. They really need a union.

Next time: the team take a drive through the Salish-Shidhe Council!

Things I need to improve

LEARN THE RULES

Expand on hacking in every respect. Description, targets, understanding of the rules, more antagonists for Gunnhilda the hacker troll...

Make a list of common spirit and weapon stats. I shouldn't have to do that...

It has also, literally just now, occurred to me that I could use Dark Angel as a stand-in for Cyberpunk 2020's Johnny Silverhand and find a way to run the Never Fade Away adventure from the CP2020 corebook...