Masonic Ritual

After almost a year and a half on this blog, I finally have a D&D post.

After tonight’s Kaserne on the Borderlands session, someone mentioned Roman cement, and I was reminded of the time another friend broke a Living Greyhawk module in the first ten minutes of play.

To set the scene: the PCs have all been hired by a particular church to escort the mortal remains of some great and powerful figure. The journey is to be by sea, and the decedent is in a large stone sarcophagus.

One of the players is AH, running Methrys, a cleric. Methrys is, among other things, a master mason – literally. AH has been buying up Craft (Masonry) to max every time Methrys levels up. Don’t know why; it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

So Methrys looks at this sarcophagus and thinks, insurance policy. And he drills two holes in the lid and completely fills the thing with concrete.

Every night of the voyage, the party heard, distantly, as if through a great thickness of stone, “Rrr rrr urrr arrrrgh” and the sound of frustrated straining…

Custom Specialties II (Twilight: 2000 4e House Rules)

A while ago, I posted a few of the custom specialties I’ve thrown together for Kaserne on the Borderlands. Since then, I’ve added a few more at player request – or because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Here’s the most recent full list.

Battle Planner (Command)

Roll Command when you spend a shift or more planning your unit’s actions in an upcoming combat. You get a +1 modifier for each of the following factors that is decisively in your team’s favor, and a -1 modifier (or greater, at the referee’s discretion) for each one that’s decisively stacked against your team: numbers, troop quality, equipment, terrain, weather, intelligence, surprise. During the planned combat and while generally following your plan, each member of your unit may completely re-roll a number of their own rolls equal to the number of successes you received on your Command roll.

Fireteam Leader (Command)

Roll Command as a fast action. If you succeed, choose one PC or allied NPC per success who can hear your voice. Each target immediately becomes unsuppressed.

Folklorist (Persuasion)

When you encounter a phenomenon that appears to be of supernatural origin, roll Persuasion. If you succeed, the GM will tell you something about related folklore or mythology. You’ll generally get more information on folklore that originated from cultures with which you share a language.

Herbal Medicine (Medical Aid)

When you attempt to forage, you may choose to gather medicinal plants rather than edible ones.  If you succeed, roll 1d12 on the following table and gain one dose per success of the indicated medicine:

  1. Pain reliever
  2. Pain reliever
  3. Pain reliever
  4. Anesthetic, local
  5. Antibiotics
  6. Antacid
  7. Anti-diarrheal
  8. Multivitamins
  9. Sedative
  10. Stimulant, mild
  11. Stimulant, mild
  12. Stimulant, strong

[Some of these meds are also homebrewed. I’ll eventually post them too.]

Insurgent Leader (Command)

Roll Command when you spend a shift or more interacting with allied NPCs. If you succeed, each affected NPC gains Unit Morale one step lower than your own (to a minimum of D6) while within 5 hexes of you. In abstract mass combat, while within voice or visual range of you, each affected NPC gains one step of troop quality, to a maximum of D12. These effects last for one day per success you rolled.

Jerry-Rig (Tech)

Gives a +1 bonus to Survival when scrounging for parts and a +1 bonus to Tech when repairing or improvising construction of simple machines.

[We’re currently monitoring this one to see if it’s too powerful.]

Medical Examiner (Medical Aid)

Roll Medical Aid when you spend a stretch or more examining a dead body.  If you succeed, the Referee should give you some useful information about what happened to your subject and when.

Meteorologist (Survival)

Roll Survival when you spend a stretch or more making weather observations.  If you succeed, the Referee should tell you the upcoming weather trend for a number of days equal to the successes you rolled.

Pharmacist (Medical Aid)

Gain a +1 to Tech rolls for creating medications, and to Medical Aid rolls to use medications or identify and treat poisons.

Prepared Packer (Survival)

Once per session, roll Survival. If you succeed, you may declare that one common item was “in your pack all along.” Add the item to your inventory. The item may not have a weight greater than the number of successes you rolled, may not exceed your available encumbrance, and must plausibly fit inside your backpack or pockets. If you use this specialty to produce a common firearm or limited-use item, it comes with 1d3 reloads or uses.

[Some of us are Night’s Black Agents fans.]

Storyteller (Persuasion)

Once per shift, roll Persuasion when you spend a stretch (5-10 minutes) telling a moving or inspirational story. For each success, choose one audience member who may remove 1 stress.

[We’re also monitoring this one to see if it’s calibrated appropriately.]

Kamiensk Downtime and Radomsko Reconnaissance (02-05 October 2000)

We’re at another point in the campaign where some extended recon is necessary to plan the team’s next move. The sneakier PCs will head back down to Radomsko to see if they can learn a bit more about Shotkin’s marauders. The rest of the team will stay in Kamiensk to pull maintenance, work on improving local conditions, and provide additional security in case anything untoward happens.

For the Kamiensk element, I’ll handle downtime according to the usual rules. My players have given me general agendas, which I’ll resolve offscreen. For the Radomsko recon team, I’ll use the same abstract system I used for the activities before the Battle of Radom, with some tweaks to account for lessons learned:

The marauders have an Alert stat ranging from 0 to 5, representing how aggressively they are hunting suspected infiltrators/saboteurs. 0 is absolute complacency; 5 is full counterinsurgency. They’re currently at a 3 because of their awareness of imminent conflict with the 124th Motor Rifle Division.

Each shift of reconnaissance first involves a Recon check for the team to avoid notice, using the worst stealth-focused Recon in the team (Infiltrator applies; equipment applies at the lowest effective bonus across the team). This is opposed by a Recon roll for the enemy forces. If the PCs have more net successes, Alert stays the same. If the PCs and enemies have equal successes, Alert stays the same but each PC takes 1 Stress from a close call. If the enemies have more net successes, Alert increases by 1 per success and one randomly-selected PC receives one long-range attack as they’re spotted. If Alert reaches 5, the enemy mobilizes to hunt down the recon team and the PCs are forced to withdraw.

The PCs’ stealth also gets a -1 penalty on clear, sunny days; a +1 bonus on rainy days (+2 for exceptionally heavy precipitation); and a +2 bonus at night.

After seeing if the team is detected, I’ll then make a second skill check to determine what the team learns from that shift’s observation. I’ll randomly select a PC who’s participating in the mission, then roll one of their skills that’s appropriate to the narrative (defaulting to Recon if nothing else applies). Each success will give them one of the following effects:

  • general information on the contents of a new city hex
  • a key detail of the marauder’s strength, equipment, or activities
  • the location or a key detail of a major landmark in the city
  • useful and relevant salvage

PCs do not recover Stress (upper-case) during a recon operation because of the constant stress (lower-case) of conducting close reconnaissance in enemy territory.

PC capabilities relevant to this op are:


Recon A+C (fatigues; forensics kit; Investigator)
Command B+B (Tactician)
Persuasion B+B (Interrogator, Linguist)


Recon A+C (fatigues; ghillie suit; Infiltrator; Scout)
Survival A+B (Scrounger)


Recon A+B (fatigues; ghillie suit; Infiltrator; Scout)
Survival A+C (Navigator)


Recon B+C (fatigues; ghillie suit; Scout)
Survival B+C (Hunter)

October 2

Weather: cloudy

Alert: 3

The recon team spends the day resting up and preparing for their operation. Miko makes a ghillie suit for Ellis. Cat makes one for Ortiz, who will be going along to stay at the forward camp with the UAZ-469 and serve as the team’s getaway driver.

Pettimore and Erick take a couple of the younger, fitter Kamiensk residents and go hunting. They return with a half-dozen game birds and two small deer. The Marine spends the rest of his evening cleaning his gear and helping with weapon maintenance, while the chaplain’s assistant helps out Father Miroslav with evening lessons for the village’s children.

Ellis spends the day documenting his observations so far, going back over the video he shot in Radomsko, and interviewing select residents to see if he can extract any more useful intel.

Octavia, Betsy, and Cowboy set up an impromptu armorer’s workshop and try to deal with the accelerated entropy that affected some people’s equipment. Most of a day’s work takes care of everything that the recon element will be bringing with them. Octavia tags out to check on the baby she delivered yesterday and the kid’s mother, while Betsy and Cowboy continue working on their own equipment. [By the end of this process, they’ll collectively have enough Tech successes to bring everyone’s equipment up to full Reliability.]

October 3

Weather: partly cloudy

Alert: 3

The recon team leaves before dawn, taking their time getting into position outside Radomsko. Ellis identified a few good hide sites on his last trip, and the group gives the marauders’ defensive line a wide berth [a full shift for undetected travel; with this group and some good planning, navigation and stealth are easy]. They set up their base camp in an abandoned garage south of the city, pulling the UAZ-469 into one of the bays. Once that’s done, Ortiz keeps watch while the four PCs catch some rest and collect local vegetation for their ghillie suits.

After sunset, Ellis, Pettimore, Cat, and Miko sneak into Radomsko’s outskirts. They’re fresh and most of the marauders are still sitting on a defensive line on the other side of the city, so there’s little chance of detection. In a long probe of the city’s outskirts, they’re able to get a general survey of four hexes:

  • Hex 19 is undeveloped. Radomsko was expanding in that direction before the war, but the terrain was in the process of being cleared. Vegetation is now reclaiming the torn-up earth and half-poured foundations. Heavy construction equipment stands abandoned and rusting, and some of it shows signs that tank crews used it for gunnery practice.
  • Hex 16 was residential. The homes here are larger than in the city center, spaced more widely and still surrounded by forest that, to Pettimore’s eye, shows signs of deliberate reforestation in the prewar years. This was where Radomsko’s upper crust – Party officials and their business associates – lived. Now it’s mostly uninhabited, save for a couple of farm collectives around a cluster of orchards.
  • Hex 12 was, and remains, farmland. Several of the aforementioned collectives are here. The team does observe a marauder patrol moving through the area, but they appear to be checking on harvest progress and aren’t particularly alert for PC-type trouble.
  • Hex 7 was the city’s public works complex: water treatment plant, coal-fired power plant, telephone exchange, landfill, and a few other industrial facilities all were located here. All of the utilities are heavily damaged, probably beyond restoration with local resources.

Meanwhile, in Kamiensk, the whole team pitches in for a shift of assisting with the harvest. Once that’s done, Cowboy and Betsy pull maintenance on Industrial Light and Mayhem (the team’s MAN KAT1 8×8 heavy truck), Comms (the BTR-70K), and Thing One (the BMW K75S touring motorcycle). They then turn their attention to the recently-recovered PTS-M, bringing it up to what they consider acceptable condition. Octavia and Erick spend the balance of their time on medical aid and teaching.

[For each day that the team averages one shift per person on agriculture, they will be able to share in Kamiensk’s harvest. Mechanically, this will give them a food share sufficient to feed themselves without consuming any of the rations they brought with them.]

October 4

Weather: partly cloudy

Alert: 3

In Kamiensk, the team continues assisting with the harvest. Around that work, Cowboy and Octavia crank up the still and start feeding it the inedible material for fuel production. After a while, Octavia leaves Cowboy to it. One of the village teenagers, Sylwia Bosko, demonstrated some medical aptitude yesterday, and Octavia is determined to train up a midwife for the impending baby boom.

Betsy and Erick grab a work crew from those who can be spared from the fields. It’s past time to build some reinforced fighting positions to cover the key approaches to the village. They start on the south side.

In Radomsko, Ellis wants another look at the city center. He, Pettimore, Miko, and Cat carefully ease in toward the government complex. Their ingress is uncontested. As they near the city center, they observe a large group of marauders breaking up and moving out in different directions. Ellis reasons that Shotkin pulled in his defensive line when the expected punitive attack from the 124th MRD didn’t materialize, and now the mutineers are dispersing back to their territories.

Pettimore catches sight of a UAZ pulling away, heading northeast at a leisurely pace. The scout-sniper takes point, leading the recon team along the edge of the government center and into Hex 14. This area was once Radomsko’s entertainment and cultural district. The team trails the vehicle past the opera house, the shattered remains of the cinema, the hockey arena, and the nightclub district before it pulls into the rear loading dock area of the Regional Museum.

Cat points to a shattered church a couple hundred meters to the north. “Betcha no one’s going in there these days.” Her intuition is correct. The building’s interior condition is only slightly better than its exterior appearance, but as far as the team can tell without Betsy’s practiced eye, it should hold together. More importantly, its south-facing upper sections provide an excellent view of the museum.

After a day’s worth of observation, it’s evident that the Regional Museum is Shotkin’s headquarters and residence. He makes several appearances, receiving and dispatching messengers and checking in with his men. About fifteen marauders seem to be based at the compound. In addition to the UAZ, which is fitted with a heavy machine gun, there’s also a BMP-3 parked in the courtyard. It’s likely that this is the “tank” which was reported in the marauders’ hands – not truly an MBT, but a potentially lethal problem (though one that’s within the team’s capabilities to deal with if they plan their fight well).

A few hours after sunset, Big Rasputin makes an appearance. He eases out onto the museum’s front steps, pauses between the sconces in which torches flicker, and again sniffs the air. Through Thoughts and Prayers‘ scope, Pettimore can see the moment when the man’s fire-lit expression changes from disinterest to curiousity to suspicion. Shotkin’s hatchetman gathers up a fireteam of marauders with a gesture and begins loping north toward the church. “We’re leaving. Now,” Pettimore states. The team exits the building and moves another hundred meters away, into the remains of a collection of upscale shops. From their new location, they can see Big Rasputin and his troops investigating their former hiding spot [-1 Stress to all team members].

October 5

Weather: cloudy

Alert: 3

In Kamiensk, the harvest goes on. Octavia and Cowboy continue fuel production. Cowboy takes some time off to forage around the village’s outskirts and comes back with an armful of wild roses, which she sets out to dry in a corner of the warehouse that the team is using as a temporary base. Octavia continues her tutelage of Sylwia.

At Father Miroslav’s request, Erick spends the afternoon putting his social work degree to use. There are several simmering issues in the village, and not all of them are suited to the priest’s temperament or position of authority. As an outsider – and a much younger outsider, at that – Erick is a source of guidance that some people will heed even if they weren’t listening to Father Miroslav.

With construction under way on fighting positions, Betsy digs into the team’s small stock of office supplies. She spends the day surveying and sketching, doing math, and occasionally chuckling in a way that would be disturbing if anyone overheard her. At dinner, she presents Father Miroslav and the village’s elders with a set of plans for defensive improvements that should be within the local workforce’s capabilities.

Cat, Ellis, Miko, and Pettimore know they need to be cautious, but they also have the proverbial scent of their enemy. They back off, looking for other observation points from which to keep tabs on Shotkin. To the southeast of the cultural district, Hex 18 is a nature preserve. Unmaintained since the bombs fell, it’s now a wild tangle – a good environment for hunters like Pettimore and Cat. The team spends some time scouting ambush sites and fallback routes before moving back into the city proper.

Miko finds another hiding spot about 300 meters south of the museum. The team settles in to observe. Having done his job, the young Pole takes a few minutes to poke around in the abandoned townhouses and comes up with a trio of bootleg VHS tapes. According to the crooked labels, he’s found Polish-subtitled copies of Working Girl, Akira, and Die Hard!

Any celebration is short-lived. Shortly before dusk, Cat spots a fireteam of marauders walking toward the museum with a trio of prisoners: two boys and a girl, all about Miko’s age. They’re dressed raggedly for travel, and one of the marauders is carrying three half-empty rucksacks.

“Glad I didn’t push my luck with the traveling trader routine,” Ellis comments.

“Nah,” Pettimore growls. “They ain’t visiting. They tried to run away.”

As the team watches, Shotkin emerges from the museum, Big Rasputin at his shoulder. The warlord has forsaken his usual mixed military and civilian attire for a dark purple caftan with silver embroidery. Rings bedeck his hands and gold chains weigh down his neck. He smiles broadly at the capture team, spreads his hands in benediction, then turns to the prisoners. As his gaze falls upon him, they sink to their knees in unison. Through their scopes and binoculars, the team can see the teenagers are shivering in the evening chill but devoid of expression.

Shotkin leans down to each prisoner in turn, cups their face in his hands, and whispers something to them. He steps back and glances at Big Rasputin, who pulls one of the boys to his feet and marches him into the museum. Shotkin throws a dismissive gesture to his household troops, who haul the other two teenagers away toward the wing of the museum that serves as their barracks. The patrol who brought in the prisoners glances at one another and leaves, probably returning to their territory.

A half hour passes without further activity. The sun sinks below the broken-toothed western skyline and a moist autumn chill sets in. Ellis shivers, then goes still as something just below the level of conscious awareness touches his instincts. He brings his G3 to his shoulder and leans out the window. The flicker of motion on the ground below registers, and he throws himself back. The broadhead arrow that would have taken him in the neck slashes across his left bicep instead before burying itself in the opposite wall [Alert +1, all PCs -1 Stress, Ellis -2 Hits!]. Through the gloaming, the agent can see more shapes dashing forward.

The team grabs their gear and starts moving. Pettimore pauses on the way out of the room to shove a field dressing into Ellis’ hands. “Don’t leave a blood trail for him,” he spits. Ellis hands the scout-sniper his rifle and begins winding the dressing around his arm as he moves toward the exit. Pettimore gives the arrow a thoughtful look and yanks it out of the plaster, dropping it into his own quiver.

The recon team dashes through the darkened streets. They can hear their pursuers’ footfalls, catch occasional glimpses of them moving from cover to cover. With a flash of insight, Ellis realizes the marauders aren’t holding fire because they can’t see him and his teammates – they’re holding fire because they want captures. Worse, he also realizes what he’s not hearing: any form of spoken communication. [Ellis -1 Stress from a 1 on a pushed Command/Tactician roll].

The pursuit seems to let up as the team pushes into a thicket that marks the boundary of the old nature preserve. They keep moving for another fifteen minutes before pausing to tend to Ellis’ wound. Pettimore and Cat spread out to pull security while Miko helps Ellis clean and re-bind the laceration.

Pettimore shifts uneasily. Something’s nagging at him. He begins spiraling out, crouching every few meters to examine his surroundings. He risks a hand-shielded flicker of a red-lensed flashlight “Son of a bitch,” he breathes.

Cat ghosts over and makes a soft interrogative sound.

Pettimore points to the ground along the game trail that was going to be their egress route. In the soft earth is a set of heavy footprints: immense, four-toed, spread wider than a human’s. The tracks are recent, within the hour, heading into the city. With a greater level of detail than moisture on stair treads, Pettimore and Cat can make out the imprints of short, curved claws.

At this point, everyone’s taken some Stress and Ellis is hurting. More critically, the marauders are at Alert 4. Another bad stealth roll will see them mobilize to hunt down the recon team. The team confers and decides they’re pushed their luck enough. They’ve gotten a good look at Shotkin’s headquarters, including exterior defenses and the garrison’s patterns of life. It’s time to pull back to Kamiensk, share the take with the rest of their associates, and decide on their next move.

TL;DR Intelligence Summary

Shotkin’s HQ is in Hex 14, in the Regional Museum. His “household troops” are Big Rasputin and roughly 15 marauders with a UAZ-469 (mounted heavy machine gun) and a BMP-C. The building appears lightly fortified, with a few vehicle barriers in the street and a sandbagged sniper/machine gun nest in the clock tower on the southeast corner. Both vehicles are parked in the rear of the museum, next to its loading dock. The marauders don’t appear to have sentry posts, but they casually wander around the museum complex.

After dark, candles and oil lamps provide interior illumination, with torches lit on the outside of the building and on the vehicle barriers. Other than weapons and vehicles, there’s no evidence of complex technology in use. Shotkin appears to communicate with his subordinate gangs by way of messenger; there’s also a signal flag halyard atop the the clock tower.

Unlike the bank, there’s no evidence that civilian laborers are employed here. The only non-marauders seen were the three prisoners.

The museum’s immediate surroundings are an overgrown park to the north, abandoned townhouses to the east (the church across the street is a burned-out ruin), a toppled monument to the south, and abandoned shops to the west.

Transfusion (30 September – 01 October 2000)

The radio headset emits a hiss of fading static as Erick picks it up, then goes dead with a pop.

Cat gives him an ashen look. “You heard that?” she asks.

“I heard something,” the chaplain’s assistant confirms. “Do you need a break?”

Cat hesitates. She desperately wants out of the air traffic control tower, but she doesn’t want to leave Erick alone on sentry duty. “No. No, I’ll stay.”

Down in the carcass of the Luftwaffe C-160, Miko is busy looting the aircrew’s survival gear. Cowboy squeezes past the bodies to tear apart the console and splice in the dynamo from the hand-cranked emergency radio. It takes some creative engineering, but she’s able to power up the navigation avionics for a few minutes. She and Pettimore confirm the details of the flight plan that Pettimore found: the aircraft launched from a strip near Bremerhaven with an out-and-back flight profile suggestive of an airdrop about twenty kilometers north of Czestochowa, but it never made it to that waypoint.

As Cat is surveying the surrounding scenery, she catches sight of a lone figure in civilian garb moving toward the terminal. Through her binoculars, she recognizes Ellis and, with Erick on overwatch, goes out to make contact with him. Once the CIA operator is united with the team, he gives them a brief summary of what he saw in the city center and suggests they return to Kamiensk to brief Octavia and the NPCs and to have the doc take a look at Cowboy’s leg.

Pettimore collects the pilot and copilot’s dog tags for later faith services, as he can’t take the remains with him.

The team limps into Kamiensk around 1300. The day is still crisp and clear but clouds on the horizon are preparing to fulfill Hernandez’s promise of rain. Octavia, still bloody and exhaused from delivering a baby, comes out to meet them. She shoves the fatigue aside when she sees Cowboy’s leg.

The accelerated healing that the team has previously enjoyed is still in effect, but upon examining the wound, Octavia notes a patch of aged skin around the injury site. Lives spots, a mole, general texture – something more than the usual weirdness is happening. A fluid sample reveals a thick black sludge in Cowboy’s blood at the injury site. Octavia doesn’t have the equipment to analyze it in detail, but that color of bodily secretions is never good. Ellis volunteers that he’s O-negative and Octavia sets up a transfusion. Over the course of a few hours, the seepage from the wound site returns to normal.

Cat pulls Ellis aside and confides her radio experience, including her recognition of the speaker as someone she knows was KIA during TF Cobalt’s operation. She suggests that the oddities the team has been experiencing all have to do with time – voices from the past, accelerated healing, accelerated entropy. Ellis wonders aloud if the author of Roadside Picnic was on to something, and seems disappointed when Cat doesn’t get the reference.

Pettimore takes the aviators’ dog tags to Father Miroslav and asks him to perform last rites for the Catholic airman, and requests that the tags be buried in the churchyard. The priest is more than glad to do so, and asks Pettimore and Erick to attend him while he performs the ritual. Afterward, Pettimore asks Father Miroslav to take his confession. He’s not Catholic, but the amount of death he’s seen recently is weighing on him. The Pole eyes him and nods. “You’re not Catholic, but I think God will listen. Let’s take a walk.”

Ellis shows the team the video he shot of the meeting at the bank. It takes a while, with too many people clustered around a tiny LCD screen, and with many requests to rewind (and “enhance”). A few threads of observation emerge:

Octavia notes that Comrade is paying very close attention. He’s not growling, but his body language screams “enemy sighted.” The doctor also notes that the body language of the men in the video is very reminiscent of pack predators, and it’s even more pronounced when Shotkin is present. They’re more unified – not being puppeted, but the pack bond seems stronger. Which should not be a thing at all.

Pettimore becomes very interested in the large Rasputin-looking guy. He strains to make out details but he can’t tell if Shotkin’s apparent hatchetman is missing a digit on one of his hands. He also observes that the pairs of men sent out from the bank were messengers or couriers – they were roughly splitting up toward the four points of the compass, traveling with light combat loads and an apparent sense of purpose. He reasons that if the marauders are divided into gangs (or fiefdoms), then each group is likely to have its own headquarters… or fortress.

Betsy assesses the fortification work that the marauders did on the bank. It’s crude but solid, and they started with a robust building. She would not want to try blasting her way in there under fire.

Cowboy notes that the fire truck-turned-gun truck is riding oddly low on its rear suspension. It’s a rescue rig, not the type that would have an onboard water tank, so what’s back there? There’s some speculation that it’s full of gold looted from the bank. Then Ellis glances at Cat. “Ah… Cat, how big was that box that Task Force Cobalt recovered in Lodz?”

Cat flashes back. She didn’t handle the object that TF Cobalt paid in blood to extract from Politechnika Łódzka, but she saw it. It was dull steel, about the size and form factor of a large coffin. Heavy-duty handles welded to it, with rubber-footed rails similar to helicopter skids on the underside. A few telemetry and power ports on one side, but no apparent way to open it. Radiation trefoil stickers on all faces, but no other markings.

Only the Air Force technical crew attached to Task Force Cobalt touched the thing. Everyone else was under orders to stay at least five meters away from it unless specifically requested by the techs.

When Cat saw the techs loading the object into their truck, it looked immensely heavy. These guys were all near special operations levels of fitness themselves, not pencil-necked geeks, and six of them were straining to lift the thing. She’d estimate it at around half a ton. Once they got it up, though, they seemed to be more pushing it than carrying it – it moved weirdly.

Octavia cocks an ear at this. She pulls Cat aside, asks a few probing questions. She comes up with the thing having mass and inertia, but not being subject to gravity. Which is pure physics bullshit, but that seems to be the world in which she’s trapped now.

The immediate conclusion, however, is that whatever and wherever the box is, it’s not in the back of the fire truck now.

The team wibbles for a bit on what to do. There is clearly some bad weirdness happening in Radomsko, but what do they do about it? Do they go after Shotkin himself, try to break his toys, or write off the days spent here and try to divert around the city rather than tangling with a large marauder force?

At the end, they decide they need more information. Ellis, Pettimore, and Miko head back south for another look at what Shotkin has been putting into motion. What they find is about fifty marauders strung out in defensive positions across the city’s north edge. Ellis realizes that Shotkin must be expecting a probe from the 124th Motor Rifle Division after his guys whacked one of the Soviets’ patrols. This presents an opportunity… and the team does still have Katyushka Alekseev in custody…

Captain Sergei Andrejev rolls out of Piotrków Trybunalski with a company of rear-echelon troops turned infantrymen who are no happier than he is about the thunderstorm through which they’re traveling. They have their orders, though, and the marauders who wiped out one of the 124th MRD’s patrols will pay. His review of the ops plan is suddenly interrupted by his lead BTR slamming on its brakes and nearly sliding into a ditch. Looking up, Andrejev sees the BTR nose-to-nose with a UAZ-469 containing two people in piecemeal Polish fatigues. He curses, grabs his radio mic, and orders his men to deploy from their trucks. He stays dry for now – to coordinate, he tells himself – and tells the driver of the trailing HMMWV weapons carrier to swing out in case automatic grenade launcher landscaping is needed.

As his subordinate leaders are acknowledging the orders, an unfamiliar voice comes up on the frequency. Andrejev already expects trouble, so he’s not inclined to trust, but he buys his troops some time to get the other force under their guns. As he watches, a BTR-70K slowly rolls forward, turret ostentatiously traversed to the side. It stops and a man in a GRU major’s uniform hops out, followed by two heavily-armed women.

Andrejev sighs, hooks a finger at his RTO, and moves forward to parley. The major is in surprisingly good spirits, but seems to be waiting for a salute. If this is a trap, Andrejev isn’t falling for it – he learned not to sniper-check the Americans years ago.

The major claims to have intel on marauders around Radomsko. He’s surprisingly well-informed – so much so that Andrejev wonders just who his chain of command has been talking to about the mission he only received last night. Then the major drops his second bombshell: he has a survivor of the missing patrol in custody and he’d like to hand her off to Andrejev.

The captain is feeling distinctly paranoid at this point, but massacring a GRU operations team would look bad on his next officer evaluation. He sends his company medic forward, along with two of his more casual murderers for escort. The medic comes back a few minutes later with the missing Private Alekseev strapped to a litter, which confirms at least some of the major’s story.

The major takes the opportunity to expand on his earlier suggestion of intel. The marauders in Radomsko are more numerous than Andrejev’s intel briefing suggested, and they’re alerted to his expedition. Andrejev is rolling toward an ambush.

Andrejev considers. If this is a marauder ruse, it’s a damned complicated one, and the major does seem to know his stuff. The captain excuses himself, returns to his truck, and calls in the encounter. There’s a few minutes of silence, no doubt while HQ digests his report. Finally, his colonel comes back on the channel. The major and his team are to receive all available aid. As Andrejev’s mission is compromised, he’s to return to the garrison rather than sitting out in the rain burning fuel.

Andrejev squelches back to the major and extends the 124th’s hospitality. The major smiles broadly but declines; he and his team will be operating south of Piotrków Trybunalski for a few more weeks, and they need to get back to their mission now that they’ve delivered their warning and their rescuee. However, could he get contact frequencies for the 124th – just in case he has anything more to pass along?

As Andrejev watches the UAZ and the APC turn around and roll south, he replays the encounter in his mind. The major was the only Soviet uniform he saw, and none of the Poles appeared to speak any Russian. Weird, that – he’s never known the GRU to use that much local talent before. Maybe the major is going native…

Ellis Takes a Walk (28-30 September 2000)

[Ellis’ player had to miss a couple of sessions, so our “why the PC is not here” hand-wave was that he was off doing intel things. Before the next session, I did a quick Discord resolution of what he learned. The following is a lightly-edited transcript of that, posted with the player’s permission. My narration is in italics; his is in normal text.]

In the interrogation chat that we had with Miko, one of the suggested paths forward was to infilitrate Radomsko and, considering its proximity as well as the mystery surrounding Shotkin, I think there’s a lot of value in teasing on that thread a little. I’m curious if the brainfog is being reinforced there by design or if it’s a side-effect of everyone having to work so hard just to stay alive… especially since there’s apparently a man from Quranic myth bouncing around that seems connected to Shotkin (at least, that’s the impression I got since the people who hit the person we interrogated knew both names)

Sound good. Does going in solo in civilian attire still seem like the approach you want to take?

Probably – wouldn’t mind working a cover like I did previously – trader, occasionally links up with Miko to “resupply” and pass intel. Was thinking of including some of the printed material in my trader stuff to gauge reaction/interest but I’d want to get consensus on that before doing it since printed material isn’t exactly as ubiquitous as the BeforeTimes™

So with Ellis rejoining the PCs in today’s session, he’s only been in Radomsko for three days (September 28-30). What level of risk, or what sort of revelation, would make him break off an infiltration that quickly?

Or, to ask it another way, what would either exceed his risk tolerance or be so critical he’d have to risk burning his cover to get word back to the rest of the team?

It’d have to be something that felt urgent… something incredibly threatening and imminent (though preferably not), something so fantastic that it can’t wait, something important but time critical “This will only be good for the next x days” or something. Basically anything that’s really big or really time sensitive. That’s the answer to the first question.

Something that might exceed his risk appetite… A familiar face that isn’t friendly that could compromise him (and feeling like he couldn’t adequately disguise himself), undue suspicion (like immediately coming under scrutiny even if he did everything correct and hadn’t even started working angles, prescient dreams of impending doom might do it at this point as well.

Okay. Pick any three hexes on the Radomsko city map that the team hasn’t explored yet. I’ll give you details on those to represent general recon, as well as your big reason to come back. Does that work?

10, 11, 15

As a reminder, the team has already checked 13 (hospital), 8 (airport), 4 (working-class residential, some firestorm damage), and 1 (industrial, significant combat and firestorm damage).

We’ll say Ellis came in from the south, through Hex 12, which is largely agricultural. He didn’t see anything of particular note there, so he started his investigations 11, which is the south side of the old city center. It was predominantly commercial (shops and businesses), interspersed with older middle-class homes. This is probably where the majority of the city’s remaining population lives – call it ~700 residents. They’ve adapted to the loss of utilities, though there’s nothing at all in the way of replacements.

It is immediately obvious that this community is, at best, insular. Residents are clustered together in neighborhoods that they’ve fixed up to be habitable, with backyard gardens and chicken/rabbit pens and the occasional goat or cow. Those enclaves are separated by buffers of at least a block which appear to be untenanted and used only as sources for salvaged building materials.

There’s surprisingly little interest in your “trader” wares. A few children want to see what you have, but their caretakers call them away pretty quickly.

(spoil sports…)

Hex 15 is the city’s old historic core. It’s surprisingly intact – and, just as surprisingly, only has a handful of residents. Many of the buildings here predate modern utilities, so you’d expect it to have been resettled. However, the former shops, townhouses, and offices of minor government agencies do not appear to be in use. Checking some of those offices shows a fairly consistent story: burn barrels in courtyards or back alleys, mass destruction of records.

There’s a fair amount of good gleanings still available in the back rooms of many of the shops, too. You’d expect an area like this to have been heavily Miko’d.

There is no sign that anyone is conducting commerce in any of these shops.

Then there’s Hex 10, the former government center, both for Radomsko’s city government and that of the surrounding county. This is where things get tense. You have to evade a couple of patrols, each 3-4 marauders – when you have a chance to compare notes with Pettimore, these will be wearing the same identifying markings that he noted earlier, with the left sleeve cut off of each of their uniform jackets. They’re equipped with pretty standard Warsaw Pact small arms.

You’re able to track them back to their HQ in a bank building. They’ve fortified it and the two adjoining buildings – vehicle barriers, a couple of sandbagged fighting positions on the roof, sandbag-and-plywood covered walkways between the buildings at ground level. Your best estimate on numbers is about a dozen.

They’ve got a fire engine that they’ve converted into a gun truck. Improvised armor, a gun ring cut and welded in the cab roof, a twin-mount light machine gun up top.

This, but add more Mad Max.

You gather this over the course of a couple of hours, from a good hide on the third floor of a building across the street and halfway down the block. You’ve taken your time, covered your tracks, made sure you’re well back in the room, not in direct sunlight, lots of visual clutter between you and them.

You’re watching them working on the truck when another group rolls up in a UAZ. It’s six dudes, all armed, but no gang markings besides the usual marauder chic. Three of them are obvious security – they’re armored up, the first you’ve seen of this group wearing armor or helmets. AK-74s and secondary weapons. The fourth is similarly geared but also has a bugle slung from his kit, and he’s sitting in the back of the UAZ next to what looks like a handful of signal or semaphore flags.

The fifth is a Rasputin-looking dude, if you blew Rasputin up to Dwayne Johnson size. Wild eyes, wild beard. He leaves his AK in the truck, next to what (thanks to working with Pettimore for a while) you recognize as a bow case and a quiver with a leather cover cinched down over it. He’s sticking close to the sixth guy, and his head is on a swivel – the security detail is watching their sectors but he’s watching everywhere. Including up.

Sort of like this, but add beard, size, and crazy.

The last guy looks vaguely like Jean Reno. Shaved head, well-trimmed beard, sharp features, intense expression. He’s dressed and armed like the others but body language says everyone is deferring to him.

Just a poor warlord trying to make ends meet.

The dude in charge walks up to the bank in the middle of his security bubble. The gang members there evidently recognize him; their body language is almost animalistic, a dog pack deferring to the alpha wolf who’s come in and taken over. The gang boss comes out and there’s a conversation – looks like the dude in charge is giving orders. There’s some discussion but no pushback.

While all of this is going on, Mega-Rasputin is wandering around. His head is up and you’d swear he’s scenting the air. He’s frowning, suspicious – and he keeps looking in your direction like he just knows something’s wrong but can’t place it.

Hmm… no one ever looks up. Smart guy… and a helluva smeller on him too.

If there’s anything handy to potentially mask my scent, then I’ll get comfortable with that and push it a little longer… otherwise, I’ll back out. I thought we had a camera among us – if so, I’d like to have been able to take it with (or is it that camcorder? I can’t remember… it’s been forever). If I can mask my scent and I do stick around for another few, I’ll try to catch some images to take back with us. Does el Heffe match any descriptions we may have gotten for Shotkin? I can’t remember if anyone’s given us anything other than a name and spooky vibes

Yeah, there’s a video camera in party inventory. It’s usually on board the UAZ (as that’s the expedition’s recon vehicle).

I am strangely generous with weird loot.

This guy definitely matches the description of Shotkin that you received from the marauders you ran off (in your GRU disguise).

There are some old cleaning chemicals in a janitorial closet that you can use to mask your scent. You do so, and the big guy keeps casting around but doesn’t fixate on you. After another few minutes, Shotkin and his party pile into their UAZ and take off. The gang occupying the bank splits up; they send out four two-man teams on foot, moving off in different directions with purpose.

Whatever I can catch on camera vs just observing with eyeballs I’ll shoot. I want to be able to show the team whatever I find. Do the ones that are heading off to fight… in a direction where I would expect our folks? (player has a fantastically hard time visualizing objects in space over distance)

The five still at the bank appear to be tooling up for a fight. They’re checking their gun truck, loading supplies onto it, checking their gear.

They also run off their “housekeeping” staff – two older women who’ve clearly been cleaning and cooking, and four in their late teens or early twenties who are not dressed for the day’s early autumn chill.

(An aside for general HUMINT observations: in the two days leading up to this, you were able to speak to eight or nine people or small groups at length. Universally, they were very terse, clearly uncomfortable with you and hoping you’d go away. They claim to be satisfied with the current state of affairs and safe in Radomsko now that Shotkin and his men are here to protect them. About half of them refer to the marauders in archaic terms – “the masters” or even “the lords.” There’s no hint of rebellion, but a distinct air that these folks are beaten down. They’re generally looking malnourished, though there’s no [to your non-medical eye] sign of disease… yet.)

At least they didn’t say voivod I guess…

With one of them, after having this reaction from them a few times, I’d softly float the idea along the lines “Well, this kind of stability sounds enviable… might put down roots here”

“You’d need to talk to the Masters about that. They protect us from the Outside.” You can almost hear the capitalization. “No offense,” the old guy adds belatedly and insincerely.

“None taken” – best CIA, sell you the world, grin I can manage

(Masters plural… do I get the feeling they see the collective of Shotkin and Co as “The Masters”? I’m suddenly wondering about other variables/heirarchies that maybe aren’t immediately apparent. If that seems to be the case, as in he and his crew are “the Masters”, then so much the better)

They seem to be referring to all of the marauders collectively as “the Masters.”

The two-man teams who departed the bank all dispersed in different directions. One of those went vaguely north, in the direction you know the team was planning to operate. The guys remaining at the bank haven’t left yet. Your sense is that they just sent out messengers.

Safe to say they’re waiting for responses?

That’s a reasonable inference, yeah.

Turn off the recorder and wait – no sense draining the batteries. Wish I had a parabolic mic

You’re there about another fifteen minutes. The guys at the bank have finished their preparations and are waiting casually but not sloppily. Again, there’s an alert-predatory vibe to their demeanors. You hear the putter of the UAZ’s engine again, and catch a brief glimpse of it as it crosses a street a couple of blocks away. Shotkin and his detail are still in it – but the big Rasputin-looking dude isn’t.

Is the UAZ headed towards them or I just catch a glimpse of it down the road? If it’s headed back, I’ll capture that. If it isn’t, let it go and keep waiting…. but also, try to set something up where I’m hiding that someone might make noise to give away their approach (like a bucket in front of a door that would make noise, chimes in a door frame, something – ANYTHING so that Rasputin on steroids doesn’t get the drop on me)

It’s not heading back toward the bank.

Okay that’s good. Once I feel like I’ve gotten whatever there is to this bit of excitement, I’ll bail and try to reconnect with the others – being mindful that there’s a buncha armed dudes possibly headed their way

Okay. If you’re in Foundry right now, please give me a Recon check for stealth, taking a +1 for urban terrain.

[1 success, one 1 on a pushed roll]

Awright. Take your one Stress for that. Narratively, we’ll say you had a few prearranged RV points with the team, and will be able to tag in with them early in the session.

Is there anything that distinguishes heirarchy among their org other than Shotkin is the obvious shot caller? Also – I’m very interested in how they move. Most of the mauraders we’ve met before have been fairly undisciplined (even for the prior service types with the exception of some of those folks during the Radom business). You said something earlier about how they seemed to move kinda pack-like. Is that just when they’re around Shotkin or does that kinda bear out in the other groups I see?

the bank gang has a clear leader. No rank tabs or any other visual identifiers, but there’s a dude the others defer to, and he has a lieutenant. Everyone knows who the boss is.

They’re definitely beholden to Shotkin. His dominance is obvious in body language. They’re cowed by him. They’re intimidated by the big guy. At a guess, the big guy is Shotkin’s hatchetman.

These guys are disciplined in the sense of shared purpose, identity, and… territory. Turf. They aren’t saluting or marching, but the sense you get will align with Pettimore’s observation. They’re a gang, this is their turf, and the people who live in that turf are their kine. The more you watch their body language, the greater a sense you get of almost-feral pack dynamics. Their body language with both one another and the women is exaggerated. When Shotkin is around, it’s even more pronounced, and there’s an eerie unity to their movements. Not marionettes, but, again, like a pack of dogs when one lifts its head at a noise and all the others turn to look a moment later.

And when the big dog is around, the wagging of tails is more pronounced. Yeah, creepy… did big scary Rasputin also fit that vibe when he was with them or was he more like a pack of one?

Definitely the latter. He acknowledged the existence of the others but he reacted to Shotkin like.. .call it first-among-equals where only he and Shotkin were equal.

Oh. One other thing you would be close enough to notice, but which the team hasn’t seen yet. All of the marauders are carrying a melee weapon you haven’t seen before. It’s s short whip of braided leather with a trapezoidal chunk of metal at the tip:

F’ing cossacks…

So, in another life, I was a Russian history minor (specifically focused on the Russian revolution and the fall of the tsar and the events that led up to the formation of the Soviet Union) and I actually know what that is 🙂

Beat horses… or, dissidents.

Oh, and more interesting (I finally just broke down and looked it up) – defense against wolves

“Stand by for PC knowledge.”

As I restart Kaserne on the Borderlands, one tweak I’ve made to my GMing style is in how I provide information to my players that their characters should reasonably have. There’s little fun for anyone to find in me saying, “your character knows __.” It’s narration without player agency.

When I had in-person gaming groups, my usual solution (when I remembered to do it) was passing a note or pulling the player out of the room for a moment. Discord enables me to do the latter with multiple channels, without anyone having to leave their chair, and I do still use it for things that require a conversation. In the last couple of sessions, though, I’ve begun using Discord direct messages for shorter infodumps. This gives the player a written reference (something I’ve found is helpful when I’m imparting domain knowledge that’s more in the PC’s lane than the player’s) and lets them rephrase (or elide…) it in a manner appropriate to their character’s persona.

The cautionary note here is that I need to say, “stand by for PM,” before I start typing. Otherwise, the sudden GM silence is a bit awkward and can leave people wondering if we’re having a(nother) comms failure.

Witchcraft and Rust (29-30 September 2000)

After returning to Kamiensk to rest up from the previous day’s exploration, the team heads south again. Ellis is still off doing spook shit and Octavia needs to stay with a patient who’s going into labor, so the focus this session is on Cowboy, Pettimore, Betsy, Erick, Cat, and Miko.

The group is still very cautious about provoking a known superior force, so their plan today is to reconnoiter more of Radomsko’s outskirts. Their intended course is to enter at Hex 4, then proceed through Hexes 1, 2, and 3 before returning to their temporary base again:

They set out at first light, arriving around 1100. With sunset occurring around 1830, that should give them enough daylight to chart a good portion of the western perimeter.

Hex 4

Hex 4 is a former working-class residential area, smaller homes interspersed with ugly apartment blocks. There’s some evidence of habitation, though quite sparse: laundry on backyard lines, a community well, a few people moving about. The team avoids notice (Erick is learning the dark arts of stealth from the team’s best ninjas).

As the team moves southwest, they encounter signs of a massive fire. To Betsy’s eye, the firefighting was done by people in her line of work. Dozer scars show where engineers cut firebreaks, and a couple of blocks of houses were evidently dynamited flat to slow the fire’s progress. Whoever contained the fire was working with lots of explosives and no water pressure, suggesting this happened later in the war.

Not wanting to make contact with the local citizenry just yet, the team moves on, continuing to the southwest toward the burned-out industrial sector they spotted yesterday.

Hex 1

Navigating through the rubble is nerve-wracking. Cat is so intent on not putting the team into a dangerous situation that she almost steps into the ribcage of a charred and weathered skeleton. She’s seen plenty of dead folks, but this one hits her all wrong. She has to pause for a moment before collecting herself again [failed Survival check for navigation, pushed for 1 success and 1 Stress].

This area is – or was – predominantly warehouses and light industrial facilities. Much of it is burned out from the same conflagration or destroyed in heavy fighting, but there are surviving pockets here and there. The team passes a post office and marks it for later investigation. They’re heading for a nearby factory of some sort whose three-story roofline stands proud above the surrounding rubble.

A pack of stray dogs catches sight of the team and makes aggressive noises. A couple of gun muzzles casually swing in their direction and the dogs realize these are larger predators, not prey. They withdraw.

Miko chitters excitedly as the team approaches the factory. He points out the charred but legible sign. “Radio parts!”

Pettimore moves up and checks the perimeter, looking for signs that the building is in use. It’s closed up tight. There’s evidence that it’s on someone’s regular patrol route, but the tracks circle the factory without entering it. The Marine identifies the door that’s best-screened from outside observation – the personnel entrance on the loading dock – and waves in the rest of the team.

“Breacher up,” Erick murmurs. Miko steps forward, tapping his lucky crowbar against his hand. He strains and grunts, but the door holds.

Betsy sighs. Once again, she gently takes the crowbar from Miko. She purses her lips and contemplates the door for a moment. “Fire door,” she observes, taking a screwdriver from her kit and beginning to tap out the hinge pins. In a couple of minutes, she and Miko are able to walk the door off its hinges.

[For breaking and entering, I’ve been calling for Stamina rolls, with Builder applying its bonus. Miko is Strength B/Stamina D, plus a +1 for his lucky crowbar. This should give him decent odds, but Foundry hasn’t been giving the player the best rolls lately. By the numbers, Betsy is only slightly better at this, with Strength B/Stamina B and +1 for Builder, but she’s been rolling much better on these tasks.]

Inside, the air is stale and dusty. The building shows signs of having been efficiently stripped of most portable items of value. What’s left is raw materials, large industrial machinery, pallets, and the like. The team advances from the loading dock and shipping area into the manufacturing spaces. The industrial skylights above are dirty and stained, but they still admit enough light for easy movement.

A catwalk circles the manufacturing floor, rising high enough to provide direct access to the skylights and the clerestory windows beneath them. Cowboy heads up, looking for a vantage point from which she can keep watch for approaching threats outside the building. She’s taken two steps off the stairs onto the catwalk when the sound of shearing metal rings out. There’s just enough time for “oh, shit!” before she plummets back to the concrete floor amid several tons of folding and twisting steel.

Erick, the team’s lead medic in Octavia’s absence, darts forward, but Betsy catches his arm. The engineer carefully leads Erick and Miko forward through the maze of unstable debris while Pettimore and Cat move back to the now-open doorway to provide security in case anyone heard the noise. Cowboy is pinned and blood is flowing steadily – though not spraying, thankfully – from a gash in her left thigh [4 points of damage and a thigh gash critical]. Erick ties a pressure dressing onto the wound. She needs more treatment, but it’ll have to wait until she’s in a safer location.

Betsy takes charge of the extrication, directing Erick and Miko through the process of moving their patient out of the rubble pile. There are some alarming groans and creaks but the engineer’s hasty cribbing job holds.

As Erick cuts away the leg of Cowboy’s BDUs and sets to work, Betsy returns to examine the debris. She comes back with a frown and a handful of bolts. “This was intentional,” she states, pointing out the tool marks and the places where someone with an acetylene torch weakened the catwalk’s structural members.

Cowboy’s wound is deep, and Erick’s field surgery takes hours the team wasn’t planning on spending immobile. It’s an uneasy afternoon. Those not involved in the medical proceedings take turns keeping watch and cautiously exploring the plant. Cat, Pettimore, Miko, and Betsy find several other boobytraps strewn throughout the building: more elevated structures rigged to collapse, a couple of large manufacturing machines that could easily topple, a complex arrangement of wires and missing structural members that could collapse the whole reception area on anyone proceeding past the main entrance’s foyer. Miko’s impression is that the whole thing was set up to permit movement through the factory – at least on the ground level – but to punish exploration.

Cowboy has plenty of time to think, and to try anything to take her mind off of what Erick is doing to her leg. She’s trying to figure out how the catwalk folded around itself when she realizes she’s seeing rust and corrosion develop on the metal as she watches. “Hey. Betsy.”

Betsy steps over and looks closer. “What the hell?” She swings her HK23 around and inspects it. Sure enough, a patina of rust is forming on the receiver, and the brass in the ammo belt is showing signs of corrosion.

A quick check shows that all of Cowboy’s equipment is showing unnaturally-fast decay, as is the gear of everyone who participated in her rescue (Erick, Miko, and Betsy).

Fucking witchcraft,” Cowboy snarls.

Miko growls agreement as his AK-74’s bolt comes apart in his hands.

[Mechanically, everyone lost one point of Reliability on everything they were carrying that had Reliability – which was, in this case, only weapons. Miko was carrying a battlefield-pickup AK from the last marauder fight that had jammed twice and hadn’t been maintained since, so it was at Reliability 1/5 at the start of this scene.]

Erick finishes tying off the dressing over Cowboy’s sutured leg. The artillerist can walk, but making any kind of speed is right out. It’s after 1600 by now and there’s a general consensus that no one wants to stay in the factory any longer. Even with the team’s ridiculous healing speed, the march back to Kamiensk will do Cowboy no favors.

“Hey, what about that post office we passed?” someone suggests.

That sounds like a really good idea. The team withdraws from the factory, with Betsy and Miko taking a minute to set the door back into its frame.

The post office is similarly deserted, closed up tight and apparently just abandoned one day. Cat, Miko, and Betsy check the structure thoroughly but there’s no evidence of danger here.

Pettimore finds the break room. The wall calendar is on August 1998. There’s no coffee or tea, but the cigarette vending machine still has a dozen packs. Pettimore wrinkles his nose but tucks the coffin nails into his pack for future commerce.

The team turns their attention to the unclaimed parcels. A bit of mail tampering yields four bottles of absinthe, three chocolate bars, six issues of the Captain Kloss comic series that Miko hadn’t yet managed to collect, a yellow polo shirt in Erick’s size, and a good stack of commemorative stamps that Leks will appreciate when the team gets back to Ponikla.

With Pettimore taking first watch, the team settles in for the night. Miko withdraws to a corner to read his new finds. Cowboy crashes out. Erick and Betsy break out the toolkit and do what they can for weapon maintenance. The night passes uncomfortably but uneventfully.

September 30 dawns sharp and cold. It’s only a few degrees above freezing and the threat of winter is growing more immediate. Today is supposed to be clear, but Hernandez’ forecast calls for thunderstorms tomorrow.

Cowboy is still limping but is determined to keep moving. The team decides to wave off on their planned exploration of Hexes 2 and 3 in favor of returning to the airport in Hex 8 and using the control tower for more detailed observation of the area. They move out, but Cat gets turned around and leads them farther out of the city than intended.

Up ahead is a farming collective. Their intelligence indicates that these ring Radomsko out to a few kilometers beyond the city limits, holding a total of 3,000 of the area’s 4,000 total residents. This one seems to contain a couple dozen people, all of whom are working the fields to bring in the corn and potato harvest. Other than a couple of elderly mules, there’s no sign of labor aids – this is strictly a peasant workforce.

From their vantage point about 300 meters out, the team sees another marauder patrol approaching. Pettimore puts Thoughts and Prayers’ scope on them. He can see each of these guys is wearing multiple wristwatches. It’s an ostentatious display of looted wealth, but something clicks for him. The previous groups he’s seen have also had identifying markings: red bandannas in one case, left sleeves cut off their uniforms in the other. Each patrol sighted so far has been wearing – well, for the lack of a better phrase, gang colors.

The team kicks that around for a minute. Gangs imply territories, which, in turn, imply a structure for Shotkin’s mutineers that may be exploitable. It’s something to assess later – perhaps in conjunction with whatever Ellis turns up from wherever he’s gone.

The team waits until the marauder patrol moves off to the west, then leaves their hiding spot and resumes moving toward the airport. They arrive around 0900. The site is much as it was when they left it. They refresh themselves on the flashlight blink code they’ll use to communicate in the absence of radios, then Cat, Cowboy, and Pettimore ascend the control tower while Miko, Betsy, and Erick cautiously move to check out the crippled Luftwaffe C-160.

Up close, the transport shows signs of a hasty emergency exit after its hard landing. The rear ramp is halfway down, as far as it’ll go with the fuselage’s buckled state. All of the personnel doors are open, too. The cargo compartment is rigged for troop seating for about 20 to 30 personnel and two pallets of airdroppable payload. The pallets and chutes are still there, but the netting that once held the cargo in place has been cut away, and whatever it restrained is long gone.

The team moves up front. Both pilots are still strapped into their seats, apparently killed in the crash. The flight engineer’s seat is empty and the fire handles for both engines are pulled, suggesting that at least one crewmember survived. Someone has taken a crash axe to the radios and navigation systems – SOP for denying an enemy the ability to pull any usable intelligence from the avionics. The pilots still have their survival gear, and Miko relieves them of it along with their sidearms.

The team signals for Pettimore to join them. Once upon a time, in his MEU(SOC) days, he spent a fair number of nights on military aircraft of various NATO nations. He begins poking around for any paperwork and comes up with a flight plan. He doesn’t read much German, but navigation is something of a universal language.

The flight plan shows the aircraft left Bremerhaven, a West German coastal city near Hamburg, in July ’99. The date makes it one of the last flights anyone has seen – and therefore an exceptionally high-priority mission. It was heading for the vicinity of Czestochowa on an out-and-back flight – no landing, which implies an airdrop. From what the team can decipher of the notes on the pilot’s knee board, it encountered some sort of mechanical issue and diverted to the closest usable runway – here.

“EMP?” Pettimore asks. The team looks around for a battery to power up any surviving electronics but comes up dry. Miko steps out and yells up to the control tower.

Poking around, Cowboy finds a hand-cranked aviation-band radio, part of the control tower’s last-ditch communications gear. She begins limping her way down the stairs. Erick realizes Cat is alone on watch and begins heading to the tower to relieve her.

Cat is pacing, trying to maintain a 360º watch while simultaneously keeping an eye on proceedings at the plane carcass, when she hears a hissing sound behind her. She spins, but the tower is still empty. She moves cautiously toward the source of the sound, which is modulating into a faint crackle.

It’s coming from one of the tower’s radio headsets.

Cat knows the control tower isn’t getting power from anywhere. No indicator lights are lit, no dials are twitching, every system is dead. She breathes deeply and picks up the headset, holding one of the earphones to her ear.

“… any unit this net, this is Azure One-Five requesting immediate support…”

Cat knows that callsign. It’s a Task Force Cobalt element.

Slosh, Slosh (28 September 2000)

We’re back! We’ve restarted what’ll hopefully be regular play. This is the first session since life interfered with gaming last August.

In the morning, the team assembles to hear the take from the debriefing of the ambush survivor. Miko gets stuck delivering it, as Ellis is nowhere to be found [player had to miss the session, so Ellis is… off doing spook shit].

Afterward, there’s an extended discussion on what to do about Shotkin’s band of marauders down in Radomsko. Current intelligence suggests a force strength of about 70 and one AFV – reported as a tank, though that may not be accurate. The city’s current total population is estimated at about 4,000, with a quarter of that number residing in the ruins of the city proper and the remainder in outlying farming collectives. 70 men controlling 4,000 seems a significant disparity of force, but the team – and Father Miroslav, who’s included in many of the discussions because his brain still works – conclude that this may be part of the broader effects and regression they’re seeing.

“Keep ’em quiet, keep ’em dumb, keep ’em docile and in the dark,” Pettimore observes.

Father Miroslav gives him a thoughtful look, then notes that the issue of basic nutrition is also in play. This area of Poland is regressing toward pre-industrial agriculture, in which at least nine in ten people are directly involved in food production. When all your energy is going toward subsistence farming, there’s not a lot left for rebellion.

Something else about the debriefing results is worrying Erick (the former chaplain’s assistant) and Octavia (the most widely-read of the PCs on the expedition). They step aside to compare notes and realize that the “al-Khidr” whom Alekseev overhead mentioned shares a name with a figure from Islamic legend – variously described as a prophet, a sorcerer, or an angel.

Everyone, but especially Pettimore, finds this last element particularly problematic.

After some more debate, the team decides they’ll at least reconnoiter Radomsko. They time their departure to arrive at the city’s outskirts around midafternoon so they can observe from a distance in daylight before making their next move. They swing wide to approach from the northeast, entering the city at Hex 13:

A totally-not-stolen-from-Google Maps base map of Radomsko for exploration, with a 1km hex-flower overlay. My ruling (conveniently ignoring Urban Operations for the moment) was that one hex of movement takes one hour and exploring one hex to locate major landmarks also takes a minimum of one hour.

[I will pause here to note that the in-game Radomsko bears very little resemblance to the real-world Radomsko beyond the basic street layout.]

As the team moves past one of the outlying farming collectives, they note that harvest is well under way here, too. There’s no sign of complex machinery and only a few beasts of burden – the majority of the work is being done solely with human labor.

Hex 13

The fields give way to a strip of housing, and then to a large campus. It’s quickly apparent that this was Radomsko’s hospital. Was – someone attempted to smash the place flat. To Betsy’s trained eye, that someone had an excess of demolitions and enthusiasm but not too much skill. She does identify three buildings that are safe to enter, though: an apartment block, the facility’s motor pool and maintenance shop, and an admin and records building.

The apartment block appears to have been housing for lower-status hospital workers. It’s abandoned – not in any kind of rush so much as a gradual leakage of residents. Random household detritus is scattered around the rooms but there’s not much worth salvaging.

Miko, who’s spent a lot of time squatting and hiding in places just like this, asks himself, “where would I set up?” This leads him to the mechanical penthouse on the roof, where he hits paydirt [double 12s on a Survival check to scrounge]. My loot generator burbles to itself and coughs up:

  • a solar charger for consumer batteries
  • a folding camp chair
  • a complete set of Romanian summer-weight fatigues in woodland camouflage [sized to fit Erick]
  • an emcrypted manpack tactical radio
  • an early-generation home computer with 3.5″ and 5.25″ floppy drives [286 with EGA monitor]
Somewhere, Ellis is strangely stimulated and doesn’t know why.

From the other evidence in the space, it looks like someone was running a radio listening or relay position out of here for an extended period of time. The PC and radio were being run off a backup battery wired to the solar charger, but it’s cracked and leaking now. There’s no sign of recent habitation.

The PC is too heavy to carry comfortably, so the team leaves it in place and moves on to the motor pool. Most of the ambulance bays are empty but two UAZ-452s are present. Both are inoperable, though.

Cat pokes around the maintenance supervisor’s office and finds a welder’s mask and gloves, a rather nice oil lamp, and a cassette tape recorder with a handful of blank cassettes. Meanwhile, Betsy wanders around back to find a row of trailers. Most are basic open-topped cargo trailers but one mounts a complex apparatus. She recognizes it as a field decontamination rig, capable of spraying high-pressure water or steam to wash radiological or chemical contamination off of equipment. At three tons, though, it’s a bit heavy for the team to relocate at the moment.

Pettimore sticks his head into the dispatcher’s office. He’s not surprised to see a blank space on the wall where a large map should have hung, nor to find the decomposing shreds of paper in a binder that should have contained more fold-out maps.

The admin and records building is the team’s last stop here. The demolition work was particularly aggressive, but it seems to have mainly damaged the offices’ interiors while leaving the structure intact. A tattered sign on the wall indicates that records are in the basement.

Somehow, seven PCs only have one flashlight between them. Miko takes point with Betsy right behind him. The stairs descent and double back at a landing halfway between the ground floor and the basement. Miko has just stepped off the landing when Betsy’s hand flashes out, grabs his web gear, and yanks him back. She points out the tripwire he was about to encounter.

The tripwire is connected to a pair of improvised directional mines, positioned to sweep up the stairs and catch anyone on the landing. It’s trivial for Betsy to render them safe. Miko shines his light down to check for any more hazards and realizes the basement is flooded with rancid, knee-deep water…

… which is rippling in response to recent motion.

The team moves down cautiously, weapons readied. There’s no sound but the slosh, slosh and drip, drip of the water – until Miko hears a distant door close.

It’s about this time that Pettimore notices the faint sheen of damp footprints on the stairs, leading down to the water. They’re barely visible, fading even as he takes notice of them, but they’re exceptionally large. They have four toes, splayed wider than a human’s, and they’re spread as if to support significant weight.

Comrade begins whining and pressing back against Octavia, urging her out of the basement.

There’s a click as Pettimore swaps the magazine in Thoughts and Prayers with the one he keeps wrapped in grip tape to indicate its special ammo. “Everybody out. Now.”

The team withdraws two-by-two, with Pettimore and Cowboy bringing up the rear. Betsy pauses to re-arm the mines. Once everyone is out, they pile a couple of tons of furniture against the doors to the stairwell.

There’s no consensus on what that might have been – speculation starts with an alligator or crocodile and goes from there – but no one is really interested in sticking around after that near-encounter.

Hex 8

With about two hours of daylight remaining, the team moves carefully off to the northwest. A small residential neighborhood quickly gives way to light industrial structures, and then a three-meter chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side is a large swath of tall grass and asphalt. The airport’s hangars are weathered, with a few falling in, but there’s no sign of heavy fighting here. The main runway is blocked by the broken-winged carcass of a large transport aircraft bearing West German markings.

Miko is about to lead the team through a gap in the fence when he catches sight of a group of armed men leaving the airport’s small terminal building. The PCs ease back into cover and watch, The other group is clad in mixed Soviet fatigues and civilian attire. Four are carrying AKs, a fifth has a light machinegun, and the last is carrying a shotgun but has an RPG launcher slung across his back. They’re obviously patrolling, casually but watching their surroundings. Unwilling to risk detection, the team stays in hiding and lets the patrol pass them by, heading southeast – toward the hospital complex from which the PCs just came.

The team gives it another ten minutes for safety, then advances cautiously toward the terminal building, working their way from hangar to derelict fuel truck to maintenance shed to parking lot. The terminal is dilapidated, weathered, obviously abandoned. Scattered pockparks tell of skirmishes sometime in the past, but there are no craters or other signs of heavy combat.

Inside, it’s more of the same. Not much of value remains. Cowboy points out an empty window frame at the Luftwaffe transport. “Do we want to check that out?”

Pettimore squints at it. “You remember those cartoons where the coyote was always tryin’ t’catch the roadrunner?” He points out the window. “That’s a box on a stick.”

“Yeah, point taken. Control tower instead?”

“Control tower.”

Cowboy, Pettimore, Betsy, and Miko ascend the creaky spiral stair, all eight stories in height, that wraps around the control tower’s central support pillar. The thin metal outer skin groans ominously but the structure is still sound. At the top of the stairs, they’re confronted with a locked steel door [and their only trained locksmith, Zenobia, stayed in Ponikla when the party split]. Miko hefts his looting tool of choice:

… and strains his shoulder to no avail.

Betsy holds out a hand. “Gimme.” She sets the end of the crowbar, braces a heel, and shoves. There’s a shriek and pop as the forces on the locking mechanism exceed its design tolerances, and the door swings open.

The red-gold-purples of a rare unclouded sunset flood through the doorway. The control room is quiet, cool, almost serene. The quartet steps in and stands for a moment, drinking in the sight.

“Almost like L.A.,” Cowboy muses.

As they look around, the PCs realize this space is intact in a way nothing else in Radomsko has been so far. The radios are silent, the radar displays are dark, but there’s no sign of damage. The place appears to have been shut down in good order.

Miko beelines for the small kitchenette set into one wall. There’s no coffee but someone left behind a small stash of seasonings, presumably used when cooking on the ancient hot plate.

Pettimore looks around, rubs his chin, and nods at a locked filing cabinet. Betsy raises an eyebrow and the crowbar. There’s another pop and tinkle, then a scrape of metal on metal as Pettimore pulls a drawer open. He reaches in…

… and comes out with a handful of aviation sectional charts for southern Poland.

“Holy shit,” someone murmurs reverently.

[At this point, I deleted the fog-of-war walls on the world map and opened all of it up to player visibility.]

Pettimore turns, looking for a desk space on which to examine his prize. On the supervisor’s desk, neatly centered on the leather blotter, are a hand-carved wooden stand holding an elegant fountain pen and a thick three-ring binder. Pettimore has enough Polish to read the binder’s label: it’s the facility’s logbook.

The team gathers around. The log tells the small airport’s story: sparse but regular passenger and cargo service until 1996, then dwindling operations. Two military aviation detachments – one an attack helicopter task force, the other a tactical transport unit – arriving, setting up, and departing in turn. Fighting outside the city, ending in the destruction of the factory complex to the west. Very few flights after that.

The last entry is dated October 12, 1997:

Observed nuclear explosion to the south in the vicinity of Czestochowa. Minor EMP effects, no permanent damage notes. Power is out and no generator fuel remains for backup power. We have received no further instructions from Warsaw. On my authority, I am implementing the airfield contingency plan and ceasing operations.

“October twelfth of ninety-seven,” Pettimore says softly. “That was when our side nuked the steel plant at Czestochowa.” He closes the binder and tucks it into his pack along with the maps. He steps over to the window and says a short, silent prayer of thanks for the crew who stood their post and protected this information.

Miko takes a look out the opposite window with his binoculars. In the fading daylight, he can see the patrol the team almost encountered earlier. They’re working their way through the hospital campus, and they seem to have linked up with another patrol of similar size.

The team can’t be sure that the other side has found signs of their passage, but they’re not willing to risk their initial plan of staying in the area overnight. They exit the airport, heading back north to Kamiensk.

Debriefing Miss Alekseev (27 September 2000)

Late in the evening of 27 September, Ellis, Miko, and Bell conducted a debrief of the ambush survivor. Ellis kept his GRU uniform on and Bell stayed out of sight, so as far as the prisoner knows, she’s still in Soviet hands.

The ambush survivor is Katyushka Alekseev. Bell identifies her accent as working-class St. Petersburg or thereabouts. She was conscripted in mid-1997 as a field laundry technician, then “promoted” to disposable infantry in ’99.

She was part of a patrol from the Soviet 124th Motor Rifle Division – or what’s left of it after the mauling it received from the U.S. 5th Infantry Division in mid-July. The 124th’s survivors have settled into Piotrków and consolidated with their higher-echelon HQ and support elements (20th Guards Tank Army). The total garrison in Piotrków, which is about 20km north of Kamiensk, is probably 300-400 combat troops and about the same number of rear-echelon personnel; the latter number includes both support troops and civilian hangers-on.

Since July, the 124th’s primary duties have been traffic control at the Sulejów bridge and patrols of the main road between Piotrków and Opoczno. However, after some big unspecified fight out east (she doesn’t know the details of the Battle of Radom), traffic on that route abruptly dried up and the 124th’s focus shifted to areas west of the Pilica River.

The 124th has general awareness of multiple marauder bands, mostly Soviet deserters, operating south and west of Piotrków. Alekseev’s squad was providing escort for a 20th GTA staff officer, a Major Okeanov, who was tasked with contacting survivor settlements in the area and determining more about local conditions, including gathering intel on the deserters. Upon further questioning, Alekseev recalls Okeanov being preoccupied with some large sheets of folded paper. She doesn’t know what they were, but it’s pretty clear that she’s brain-fogged enough to not recognize maps.

Okeanov was in the BRDM-2 that was leading the patrol. Whoever ambushed them – Aleklseev assumes it was a group of the deserters – opened the fight with an RPG into the rear of the BRDM as it came around a corner. It lost power and coasted into the trees, on fire. The crew bailed out and got machine-gunned immediately. The MG team then shifted fire to the GAZ-66 that her squad was riding in, killing the driver and gunner. The squad bailed out and took cover in a ruined farmhouse, but they were receiving heavy fire from the MG team and a rifle squad was maneuvering around to their flank. That’s all she remembers of the fight. Her best estimate of enemy numbers is 2 or 3 in the machine gun team, 2 or 3 in the RPG team, and 5 to 8 in the rifle squad. She didn’t see or hear any vehicles.

Alekseev was in and out of consciousness near the end of the fight. She’s fairly certain she was the only survivor. Once the attackers moved up to secure the bodies, she heard them speaking Russian – several had Kazakh accents (which aligns with Shotkin and most of his inner circle being Kazakh).

The only conversation she can specifically recall, other than the usual litany of dudes checking bodies for useful stuff, was:

“Put away that knife. Al-Khidr wants us to leave him any who are still breathing. That one, and the guy over there. Leave them alone.”

“Have you ever seen him?”

“Shit. Don’t say that. No, I haven’t, don’t let Shotkin hear you asking that.”

Afterward, Bell points out you that “al-Khidr” sounds Arabic. Shotkin, the local warlord who’s occupying Radomsko, is known to be Kazakh. Very few Kazakhs are fluent in Arabic but many of them (despite Moscow’s wishes) remain Sunni Muslim.

As a private in a rifle squad, she wouldn’t have had great access to intel. However, they did all get general briefings about the situation to the extent that the 20th GTA’s GRU contingent could parse it. They are generally aware that the area south of Piotrków and west of the Pilica River is infested with marauders (she refers to them as “deserters”) from the former Soviet 9th Tank Division, which mutinied in late 1999.

Before the mutiny, 9th TD’s reported force strength was 1,000 combat troops and a handful of armored vehicles, including 2 tanks. It’s generally believed that none of the splinter bands number more than 100 and they haven’t kept any tanks operational (though some groups may have lesser AFVs). They were stationed in Germany before the war and had been fighting NATO from late 1996, so they had a good amount of salvaged Western equipment as well as some East German gear.

There’s no known organization between the marauder groups. Collectively, they’re believed to exert control as far south as the ruins of Czestochowa. They control at least two bridges across the Pilica but have not expanded or migrated east for some unknown reason. (The PCs know that going farther east would put the marauders into the territory of either the Bracia Wilkow… or the unspecified force which the Bracia Wilkow warned the team about.)

Infiltration and Awareness (Twilight: 2000 4e House Rules)

First draft. This is something I want to try using in tonight’s session if it becomes relevant. Adapted from Spectre Operations, 3rd Edition.

When the PCs are trying to do sneaky stuff around an enemy force (or just someone they don’t want to see them), the force starts at one of four levels of awareness. The starting level is dictated by the narrative.

Complacent (1): The NPCs have no reason to expect that anyone is sneaking around their neighborhood and have no particular motivation to be alert. PC Recon checks for stealth are not opposed.

Casual (2): The NPCs may be keeping watch or patrolling their perimeter, but they are not aware of any specific threat. They will investigate anomalous activity, but unless it’s obviously something dangerous or hostile, their general approach will be curious rather than confrontational. PC Recon checks for stealth are opposed normally.

Suspicious (3): The NPCs have reason to suspect hostile activity. Watchkeeping and patrol discipline are tightened up. Sentries will call for backup before investigating anomalous activity, and will move in expecting hostile contact. NPCs receive a +1 modifier when opposing PC Recon checks for stealth.

Alerted (4): The NPCs are actively looking for hostile activity. Anything that gets their attention will trigger a general alert. NPCs receive a +2 modifier when opposing PC Recon checks for stealth.

PCs make Recon checks for stealth normally (i.e., it’s a group check using the lowest base dice in the affected group). Each failure, whether through a natural roll or an opposed check, increases the NPCs’ awareness level by 1 and inflicts 1 Stress on each involved PC.

At the referee’s discretion, if the PCs eliminate all witnesses before they can communicate back to the rest of their group, they may temporarily forestall the increased awareness level. Sooner or later, though, someone is going to find a body or bloodstain or realize Igor isn’t at his post.