Monday, December 16, 2013

Changeling: Session 9

When last we met, our heroes finally met the elusive Madame Butterfly, who told them of their true natures.  They begin meeting with her regularly, as she trains them on how to recognise and use their new-found abilities.

The next two weeks are spent mostly with Madame Butterfly.  During that time, some in the group are able to discern from her commentary that she harbours some bitterness, though is not overtly hostile, to the Vanishers, although her interest far exceeds simple curiosity.  Putting things together, they think that her office is built specifically to keep Them out, or if the situation arose, to act as a cage to contain one of Them.

When not training, the group continues on their normal routines.  Tickets have gone on sale for Konstantyne’s “Christmas Day Massacre” show at $500 a pop.  Drake asks Alex if he’d be interested, but Alex declines the offer.  Alex does, however, wander down to Times Square to see the preparations that are being made for the show.  Still a couple of weeks away, there isn’t much yet, although framing is being erected for a large stage to be elevated high above the street, although nothing strikes him as being too unusual.  Gareth, struck with sudden inspiration, begins fervently working on a series of new art progress, and requests a collaboration with Goom, providing him with a few hundred yards of Kevlar yarn, asking him to simply knit whatever strikes his fancy. 

One night, sometime into their training, Alia is given a call and given specific instructions to open the loading dock of her building.  When she does so, she is met with a delivery-style van, sans markings, that disgorges a group of individuals clothed in pale blue full-body clean room suits, each of them carrying some manner of supplies for setting up an impromptu clean room – heavy plastic sheeting, black vinyl bags, and so on.  They set to work in Mia’s apartment, stapling the plastic sheeting to her walls, setting up lamps and a gurney, preparing a sterile space.  Just before the room is sealed off, they walk in a large cooler. 

After three hours have passed, they start breaking down and bring everything back to their van.  Alia sees that her friend is receiving a final round of blood transfusions.  Alia is cautioned to stick to a regimen of medications that will keep Mia healthy.  Although she’s just been through an intensive medical procedure, Alia can’t help but notice that Mia looks so much better than she’s ever looked.  Alia stays with her for three days, until the pills run out.

The evening of December 14th, Gareth gets together with Kali, another artist who lives in Gareth’s building.  She’s a slight, quiet young woman, who recently left an abusive marriage to pursue her art in New York, and she and Gareth, with their shared artistic pursuits and damaged pasts, have struck up a casual but close friendship.  They have one mission that night – to plaster cast Gareth’s entire body to create a base for a series of sculptures.  Once Gareth has stripped down and Kali begins applying the plaster strips to his body, Drake decides to take his leave of the apartment, heading anywhere else. 

Kali and Gareth banter a bit while she plasters his lower extremities, although she soon opens up about something she’s noticed the past few weeks.  Namely, what’s up with all the weird people Gareth’s been having in and out of his apartment?  Not that she objects, in fact she’s really glad that he seems to have finally gotten some sort of a life, and she totally encourages him in his friend-making pursuits.  It just seems as though they’ve come out of nowhere, very suddenly.  Gareth gives her vague answers, saying they’re from a support group he’s been attending for several months, and that some of them (Wally and Drake) have run into bizarre circumstances that have displaced them from their homes, and Gareth offered up his couch.  Kali expresses some concern that perhaps, with all their issues, these aren’t the best people for Gareth to hang out with. 

They’re interrupted by Goom, who walks into the apartment mid-casting to deliver his Kevlar work to Gareth.  He’s made a strange sort of web-like creation, which he says is a hammock.  Kali, a fibre artist herself, takes a gander and is intrigued.  Not wanting to stick around too long, Goom takes his leave.  As Gareth stands and dries, Kali wanders around the loft, poking about the place and ribbing Gareth on any number of subjects, as any one would when faced with a friend in such an amusingly compromised state.  After she’s cut him out of the cast and he’s gotten dressed, they make plans to get together later that week for an evening of wine and music, as they haven’t hung out much of late.  Just as she’s leaving, she seems about to say something, but thinks better of it and says goodbye.

As Kali is leaving, Drake returns to the apartment.  He and Gareth discuss that they seem to have been learning some of the same things from Yuri-ko, in that they are both able to read into and manipulate the desires of others.  Drake also lets on that he’s been regularly using one of his abilities on Gareth – a rejuvenation effect of sorts, which makes the subject feel as though they’ve had a full night’s rest, a hearty meal, and are bright and alert.  This explains why Gareth’s been making such great progress on his projects on comparatively little sleep.  Gareth asks if he can return the favour, as he’s gotten quite adept at fixing things, but Drake declines the offer.

That Thursday, the group meets again at the little Christian book store for their regular meeting, the first official meeting Alia will attend.  Drake surprises Alex with a ticket to the Konstantyne show, which Alex accepts with much hesitation.  They’re just getting started, tucked away in a back alcove of children’s books, when they hear the door chime and the teenage girl at front tells someone, “Oh, the people you’re looking for are in the back.”  There is a tense moment as a large person of indeterminate gender shuffles back – they’re dressed like a street person, with greasy matted hair, large boils, and Goom distinctly smells mildew and overall grossness.  Goom asks if they can help, and the guy (for it is actually a man) asks if this is the abductees group, which Goom confirms.

The guy starts frantically muttering, “Don’t wanna go back.  Not gonna go back.” As he reaches into his threadbare coat and pulls out a bottle of brownish liquid with a rag sticking out of the top, and a Zippo lighter.  The group immediately springs into action, although they are largely ineffectual at disarming the man, until Goom whips out his knitting needles, striking the bum across the knuckles so that he drops the lighter, which Morgan hurriedly scoops up.  Drake, turning on his charm, tries to calm the guy down, saying that they are here to help, no one is going to come for him, and so forth.  Alia, able to read and feed off of the regrets of others, determines that the man came back into the world about two years prior and has been utterly abandoned since.  All seems as though it is going to wind down until Goom, still keyed up and in battle-ready mode, lunges again at the stranger, growing slightly larger as he strikes him with his fist.  That’s when the bottle of gasoline shatters, drenching Goom and the bum and showering the rest of them with the noxious liquid.  Everyone bolts, some out the back fire exit (setting off the alarm) others out the front, including the girl at the front desk. 

After a minute, the inside of the store illuminates, windows blowing out in a blast of heat and fire, and the bum runs into the street, completely engulfed in flame.  Most of the group has fled, but Goom and Alex have stayed behind and are able to make it to the apartments above the book store, rousing everyone and getting them out before the building goes up.  By the time the fire department and paramedics arrive, they’ve managed to evacuate almost everyone, and the authorities insist they cease action to get medical attention.  Both Alex and Goom manage to slip away into shadows just as the television news crews start arriving.

Local news coverage that night is nothing but the fire and the daring rescue by two unknown heroes.  Interviews with people rescued from the inferno are full of nothing but praise (and a few good descriptions) of the two brave men.  Even Mayor Bloomberg speaks out, asking for any information about the two, as they have shown the true spirit of New York, and he wants to give them keys to the city.  In the middle of the night, Morgan, who as the organiser of the support group meetings would have left her name and information with the book store, is contacted by a Lieutenant Donegal, who asks if she was at the book store and if they can meet tomorrow to discuss exactly what happened.

The following night, Kali once again comes down to Gareth’s apartment, to enjoy a quiet evening, drinking wine, listening to music.  Recalling that Kali had wanted to say something earlier in the week, Gareth calls upon his abilies – the first he’s tried them outside of training with Madame Butterfly – to see what is going on with Kali.  He’s hit with an onslaught of desires:  Her lingering dismay at the dissolution of her marriage, but the keen need to move on; she’s desperate for a rebound.  Not just a one night fling, but a relationship, any relationship, even if it is not right at all.  She just needs.

Not wanting to let on that he’s just read her so clearly, Gareth opts instead to just embrace her, support her.  The pent up emotion in side her mixed with wine soon has Kali sobbing, bemoaning that the best male relationship she’s had since moving to NYC has been with Gareth, and fuck all if he’s gay.  When are things going to look up for her, when will she get what she needs?  Gareth is mostly quiet but commiserates with her, reassures her that she’s beautiful and worthy, offering a shoulder to cry on, and wine, more wine!  After a bit she calms down and they start talking about other things, projects they’re working on, life in the city.

That’s when Drake comes home.  Drake also reads Kali, getting all the same information Gareth had received.  Drake, however, decides that this is apparently Mortal Play Time.  He starts flirting with Kali, brazenly, turning on his charm although not going into full glamour.  Gareth immediately realises what is going on, that Drake is playing her, and although he tries to butt in, to get Kali to change the subject, leave the apartment, go back to her place, anything. But he’s helpless – Drake’s got her, and she’s gone all dreamy-eyed.  Then Drake’s cell phone rings, cutting him off mid-sentence. 

“Oh, sorry,” He says. “Gotta go.  It’s my girlfriend.”  And leaves.  Kali is in shock.  Gareth gently reaches out to her, and she agrees that they should go back up to her apartment.  A loom, yes, she’d wanted to show him a new loom project.

When they get up to her apartment, Kali’s completely expressionless.  She seems on the verge of tears, but is holding it together… barely.  She tells Gareth she’s changed her mind, she just wants to go to sleep now, but she’ll see him later.  Unsure exactly what to do, Gareth quietly agrees, but asks her to please call him if she needs anything, and maybe they can get together again sometime soon, though this time at her place.  She nods and shows him out.

Seething in anger, Gareth calls Drake.  It rings and rings before going to voice mail.  Gareth hangs up and calls again.  Straight to voice mail – Drake has turned off his phone.  More pissed than he can remember being lately, Gareth stays up, working on his projects.  He loses track of time until his phone reminds him, when it rings at 4:00 in the morning.  It is Kali.  She sounds terrible.

“Hey.  Can you come here?  I think I did something stupid.”  And the line goes dead.  Gareth is out the door before she stops talking, though, sprinting up two flights of stairs to her floor.  Her door is unlocked, though she’s nowhere to be seen in the apartment.  Calling her name, Gareth heads back to the bathroom, and there she is.  On the floor, crouched by the toilet, mostly empty bottle of vodka and an opened bottle of prescription pills at her side.  She’s pale, clammy, glassy-eyed.  Her lips have turned blue and there’s a bit of foamy spittle at the corners of her mouth.

As Gareth drops to the floor beside her, gathering her up in his arms, images come flooding back to him – Sam, or another friend, people he knew when, nearly catatonic from a heroin binge; Sam, pale and shaky, firmly in the grips of the disease that would kill him, wanting to die before the sickness took him itself; Gareth, always Gareth, sober or otherwise, always nursing them, bringing them back from the brink... until he couldn’t.  Unable to bear another loss, Gareth reaches for the only tool he’s got.

Squeezing her tight, Gareth revives Kali, as Drake had been doing to him, not knowing what will happen.  She’s blinking, colour rushing back into her face, lips no longer blue.  She’s confused.  Didn’t she just try to kill herself? That was a lot of vodka, a lot of pills, what happened?  Gareth says that maybe the pills were expired, or something.  She’s still a little shaken, but gets up.  Gareth knows there’s still all that crap in her system, and magic or no magic, she probably needs to get to an emergency room.  That first.  He’ll deal with Drake later.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

If music be the food of PCs, play on

I picked up a really fantastic trick from art school which has served me exceedingly well in crafting characters for tabletop campaigns:  Mix tapes. 

Well, playlists, since we're in the future now.  I have made playlists for probably a good half dozen or more characters who I feel the driving need to bring to as much of a fulfilled realisation as I can manage.  As I think I've mentioned before, when crafting a character, I cannot just sit idly by and allow them to be a vessel for stats.  No, I craft my characters as extensions of myself, as fully-formed beings with loves, hates, desires, and deep histories whenever possible.  Pretentious and over thinking?  You bet, but that's my bag, baby.

When I am getting ready to sit down to roll some dice, I bust out that character's mix and listen to it.  Sometimes just a quick spin through the list, sometimes I'll bring it to work and listen all day.  I'll spend hours at my computer combing through my ever-growing collection of MP3s, sourcing anything I don't already have from M'Colleague or from reputable sellers of music, throwing everything and anything that has potential into one massive list, and then listening to each song to pare down a tight core of songs that evoke whatever it is about that character that I'm trying to maintain.

I find that the list length itself often speaks to the character as well.  Ruby from the late great Deadlands game maybe had 6 songs and could be listened to just on my commute home/to game - though she had depth, her defining characteristic for me was Woman Scorned, and I could accomplish that in just a few pieces.  Gareth's got an "album length" mix which takes me to and from work without repeats.  I tell his story through his mix, and am often left a bit emotionally fragile once finished.  Perfect for the dark game that our Story-Teller has given us.

Then there's Bosabrieln.  Bosabrieln is this ridiculous Half-Elf Virtue of Cunning Bard character that I play in the 4E campaign that M'Colleague has been running for almost three years (having Grown-up Lives means we end up a few months at a time between sessions sometimes).  Bosie, as he's known, was fashioned after Oscar Wilde's lover and famously awful person Alfred "Bosie" Douglas.  He's vain, beautiful, talented as fuck, and Oh So Misunderstood.  He's alarmingly androgynous (think Andrej Pejic or Anatoly Elgert) and not fickle at all about who shares his bed, or in what quantity.  Bosabrieln's play list takes up two CDs when burned.  Prick.

We're playing today!  This has been one of those long hiatus breaks, as life was taken over by work insanity (all the PCs are my coworkers) and by wedding planning.  Over the intervening months, I've discovered some "new" music for him and so I'm currently going through and switching out old songs for better ones.  Most notable among the new selections are RHCP's "Blood Sugar Sex Magik", Britney's "Work Bitch" and, naturally, Lady Gaga's "Applause".  To be honest, I could listen to "Applause" for hours on repeat and be ready to go with Bosie, but I like to try to keep what depth I can.

They say music soothes the savage beast, and they couldn't be more right.  I started my morning in a bit of a downtrodden rut, but now I'm overcome by feeling overwhelmingly FIERCE.  Bring it, Mr. DM, the bitch is back!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Changeling: Session 8

When last we met, our heroes did some investigating, and mostly tried to carry on with their lives.

It is Thursday, 28th November, Thanksgiving, and everyone is headed to Gareth’s for a holiday meal which doubles as their regular support group meeting.  Everyone brings a little something to share, and Morgan has invited Alia along.

Though no one speaks to it, this is the best Thanksgiving any of them have had in a while.  Though things are awkward at first (what do you expect with a house full of jaded and wounded souls?) once the alcohol starts flowing, things loosen up.  Pretty soon they’re laughing and telling stories, until someone mentions Meagan, and the room falls back to silence.  But then Diggles comes up, and there they go again.  Gareth tells of some truly ridiculous and embarrassing things Diggles would do back in the 90s when Gareth and his partner, Sam, would buy from Diggles in clubs (without divulging any of the more intimate details of his erstwhile relationship).  That’s when Alia puts it all together and realises that these people are the cause of all of Diggles’ recent rash of bad luck – word does tend to get around the seedy underbelly of the city.

It is Gareth who notices the lacquered butterfly box that Wally brought in, and calls it out.  Wally explains what happened to him after leaving Gareth’s apartment the last week, after his encounter with a taxi, and the creepy limo that followed him around.  He passes around the invitations, which detail the time and place of the meeting, which is the following afternoon at the Chrysler Building. 

While deciding what to do about the invite, those who weren’t around earlier are brought up to speed on Drake’s conspiracy theory about his doppelganger’s devious plot, and the possibility that Alex’s doppel, Konstantyne, is involved in some way with his upcoming “Christmas Day Massacre”.  Adding to the connections, Morgan reveals that her doppel is known as "The Oracle”, a woman who has an uncanny knack for reading and playing the stock market, and who has made billions off of this skill, making her one of the top investors in the world. 

The following day, everyone meets at the Chrysler Building at the appointed time.  They are taken up a series of elevators to the 75th floor, which houses a triumvirate of related corporations:  Harajuku  Importers (which Wally recognises as his friend Alexis’ place of business), Harajuku Limited, and Shinjuku Exporters.  The lobby is very plush, with laquered wood, crystal clear glass doors, and a very nice reception area.  They are greeted by a very pretty young lady named Harmony , who offers them drinks, which some accept, and they wait around for a few minutes before Harmony  leads them through an expansive office space, to yet another elevator in the back of the building.  She activates it through a series of biometric scans, which verify her through her handprint and eyes.  She rides with them to the very top floor, where she smiles at them and leaves. 

They are left in a hall with mirrored walls, cherry wood, marble floors, with two bronze pillars in the centre, holding a Japanese scroll suspended in protective glass.  It is a poem, and a podium in front of it provides a translation:

As the cherry blossoms fall
At the height of their glory
So, too, must I fall

That men may call me
A flower of Yamato,
Though my bones lie scattered
In the bleak wilderness
Of strange and distant lands.

Before they continue on, Drake turns on his glamour, making him seem in an instant as though he’s beautiful beyond comprehension.  From a door at the end of the hall steps a bald Caucasian man who greets them and motions for them to follow him back through the doors from which he came.  They squeeze into a small corridor with air vents that blow up, down, and in from all sides, as though creating a curtain of air to keep something from passing through.  When they emerge on the other side, they see what is being contained. 

The room they step into his huge, easily 100 feet by 300, with artificial branches covering the ceiling, coming up from the floor, creating an enchanted woodland space at the top of the skyscraper.  And fluttering about are hundreds, thousands, of butterflies.  The view out the windows is magnificent, a treat to see New York’s skyline the way so few can.  Turning around, they see a large ornate desk in the room’s centre, and – at the very farthest corners – two huge tigers chained to the floor. 

The man wheels in a frail female figure wearing over-largedark sunglasses dressed in white and with limbs bound with gauze, almost like an Egyptian mummy, leaving her sitting at the desk where she begins to unwind the coverings around her hands, revealing the paper thin skin of the truly ancient.  She is easily in her 90s, if not older, and of Asian descent, some of her hair still black.  When she removes her glasses, her face passes in and out of shadow, showing this visage to be an illusion, much like when Wally and Alex saw each other looking strange.  Her other self only appears to be about 70 years old, a difference of at least 20 years.

It is then that they all realise, as they’re standing mostly in shadow, that they’ve all taken on an Other appearance:

            Alex looks featureless and pale, as he’d seen in his reflection at the school.
            Wally, similarly, appears corpselike, as Alex had described him.
            Goom is ogre-like, with one eye, but still very much like himself
            Alia looks bestial, partly human, partly catlike, partly something else entirely
            Drake, even accounting for his glamour looks stunningly gorgeous, beyond human.
            Morgan’s hair and clothes move on their own accord, as though rustled by an ever-present breeze.
            Gareth looks gaunt, as though he’d lost at least 50 pounds from his already thin frame.

Drake approaches the woman, and she greets them, introducing herself as Madam Butterfly, though invites them to call her by her given name, Yuri-ko.  She calls them each by their actual first names and offers to answer questions.  She is one of them and has been for some time.  She had been in contact with Meagan, assisting her before her disappearance, but claims she doesn’t know where she is.  Morgan senses she’s not being entirely truthful.

Wheeling herself out from behind the desk, she drops a bomb – she’d always thought, as the group has, that she’d been taken and replace by something Else, but she and we are wrong.  We, it seems, are the doubles, the inhuman ones.  At this declaration, she flips a switch to illuminate an aquarium below their feet.  In it swim fish of various types, but in its own spot bobs the head of a younger Japanese woman.  Madam Butterfly claims that this is herself, her supposed “double”.  She’d had her executed in the 1950s, but not before she did some tests on both of them, the results of which convinced her that she herself was not human, but this other woman was.  After she killed herself, Yuri-ko took over her other self’s life, expanding her business to the empire that is represented in part here in the Chrysler.

She speaks of others like them who she has encountered before, others who could not handle what they really were, who succumbed to the strange power that comes with their state, and who ultimately went mad and disappeared underground.  That is why she cautioned Meagan (and cautions the others now) not to go under ground, for the closer one gets to the centre of the Earth, the thinner the boundaries between our world and that of the Vanishers become.  She turns to Goom, saying that she fears for him the most, as he seems the one most likely to succumb, especially given where he lives.  The assembled group all has gifts, she explains, but they couldn’t start to realise their own powers until placed under great stress, and that’s why she’s been toying with them for the past few weeks.  It was she who placed the strange phone calls to Alex and Wally, she who planted the note on Wally during the bust, she who had suspicious persons watching Morgan’s workplace, and so on.  She who blew up the #7 bus outside their old meeting place.

The others, the “doubles” who have been living stolen lives (or not?) have no memory of their taking.  The group, as constructs made by the Vanishers, have connections to human dreams, can manipulate people through dreams, and that includes their other selves.  But that is a dangerous undertaking, as once the doubles are aware of their Other, they can use that dream connection to inflict suffering upon that individual.

Madam Butterfly reached out to this group of misfits because she needs them – there is much she wishes to accomplish before she dies, and she does seem to have a queer fixation with death.  She has spent decades searching for those she claims created them.  Why do these Other beings exist?  She needs to have some understanding before she passes on.  She has a group of six other Others also working for her, although they don’t have the same social support and strength that this group has formed.  These others had been assigned to keep an eye on Meagan, but after a certain time, they were no longer able to locate her.  She still claims she doesn’t know exactly what happened to Meagan.

She offers to train them.  Those who advance to be adept in their abilities without succumbing to madness are rare, their minds usually tend to fall apart.  There are spaces where the wall between this world and the Vanishers is thin, and they happen to be standing atop one of those spaces, which she has harnessed here.  She mentions that iron reduces the energy from the other side and is detrimental to the creatures that come from it.

When Gareth calls her out on not having done anything to affect him, she brushes him off, saying that she put in a good word for him at The Box, which is, unsurprisingly, another one of her properties, and a gate to the Vanishers’ world. 

She speaks of a blood test that can be performed to show us that we truly are unhuman.  Recalling that Wally is something of a chemist, she pulls a folder of lab results from her desk, handing it to him.  What he reads shows a chart, blood panels, of an unnamed individual.  The levels of various neurochemicals in the blood show that this person should be both experiencing serious bouts of psychosis, but also that they should be unconscious.  Overall the numbers seem to be way off, but they are consistent with a human sleeping and in an active dream state.  She insists that any one of the group, if tested, would give the same results, even when awake.

They agree to her training, which will take place over the next few weeks, sometimes as a group, sometimes individually.  To seal the deal, and for their mutual protection, she offers a peace pact – she and the group will be bound by blood, and for the duration of the pact, none of them can willfully inflict ill against another in the bond.  The bond will last until 1st January, although they are free to enter into it again at any time.  She takes out a knife and cuts her hand, asking each of them to do the same.  They do, with Alex and Gareth hesitating and going last (Gareth has a thing about mixing blood).  Again, she calls them each by their real first names – Gareth, Alex, Wallace, Alia, Thaddeus (Goom), Muriel (Morgan), and Charles (Drake).

As a show of good faith, Yuri-ko offers them any services they might need, as she has a great deal of cash and influence at her disposal.  Alia steps up and inquires if there are doctors available, as she has a friend (Mia) who needs a procedure done.  Though they speak only in the vaguest terms, Madam Butterfly does agree to provide a doctor to perform the abortion, provided that Alia makes good on the promise to train with the others on their new found abilities.  Alia concedes, and arrangements are made.

Goom does some quick medic work on those who want it, to help their hands heal quicker, and after a short time they all leave, returning to their lives for a brief while before entering into an intensive two week period of training with Madam Butterfly.