Weapons of Magick and Devilry

John_Dee's_Seal_of_GodThe Dee Sanction is a game and setting in a steady state of development. It uses a fast-paced, card-based character generation system to get the game up-and-running in moments.

Players take on the roles of outsiders, dabblers, and criminals, given a second chance when recruited as investigators into Queen Elizabeth’s intelligence task force for handling magickal and supernatural threats.

Headed by her long time confident Doctor John Dee, the setting covers both investigations on home soil and the period Dee spent in Europe seeking to secure weapons of mysticism and devilry.

Elizabeth prevails… but for how long faced with the threat of Church, Spain and foul sorcery alike.

I realise this is nothing new, but I needed to remind myself that The Dee Sanction remains very much in progress and worthy of my time and attention.

This time of year hangs heavy with convention-based commitments. The opportunity to sit and tinker with stories, plots and mechanics seem to dry up.

However, I have been pondering the greatest concern for myself around The Dee Sanction – the mechanism for handling conflict and competition. As of yet, I have not settled on a single means of resolving situations in doubt – but, I feel I’m on the cusp.

I plan to run the game at a couple of cons over the next few months and continue to aspire to run an online game or two.

Garlands of Deceit

Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, given to the National Portrait Gallery

I’m having an interesting time reading about John Dee and his role as an intelligencer within the court of Queen Elizabeth, referenced in the early sections of The Essential Enochian Grimoire: An Introduction to Angel Magick from Dr. John Dee to the Golden Dawn. While I was mainly looking for more information about Dee’s exploits with Enochian lore, his mysteries don’t start with his pursuits of the supernatural. Even before Francis Walsingham stepped up to the plate as Elizabeth’s spymaster, it seems Dee may have been running secretive errands for the Queen.

For the setting of The Dee Sanction, it’s assumed very much that Dee and Walsingham are partners in their intelligence activities. One deals with the mundane, while the other handles those threats less easily quantified.

Dee provided assistance and advice to the young Elizabeth from long before her coronation; only later did his effort become, by any measure, public knowledge. In appending the Dee Sanction to the 1563 Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, Elizabeth gave her backing to an official agency in the fight versus dark powers. Whether powers in pursuit of their own ends or in league with the likes of the Holy Cee or the King of Spain, they all come within the remit of Dee and his agents.

In reality, it’s hard to see what actually was happening. Dee did serve Elizabeth in some intelligence-based capacity; however, the available information, scattered across diaries, journals, once hidden papers and other more official sources, provides but a fragmentary view. When Dee took to his travels across Europe with Edward Kelley, actual information on the purpose of said journey remains vague.

In the face of considerable opposition, from Catholics and others, the Queen had every need to seek support, from both political allies and higher powers. The Dee Sanction follows the exploits of the player characters as agents of Dee, whether in 1570s England or deep in Eastern Europe during his travels in the 80s. Whether on the word of Dee, Kelley, Walsingham, or the Queen herself, the characters plumb the shadows for artefacts, hidden lore, and potential allies.

As if to create additional layers of uncertainty, Dee diaries contain several specific references to individuals by the name of Garland. At least four named persons have this same name and the fact they do not appear in any corroborating record suggests Dee used the term as an alias for fellow agents, couriers, or supernatural contacts. Walsingham used a variety of travellers and personalities himself, including writers, poets, diplomats, and merchants. All intelligence was good intelligence in the war against the Catholics – and undoubtedly Francis had a network scattered across Europe, gathering information, carrying messages, and spreading unrest from within.

Whether Garland was a codename isn’t clear – but, it could be. The use of Garland could be a specific code for a type of agent, or a reference Dee alone used to identify his own allies or contacts. In some references, it seems like the Garlands might be brothers – which made me think of the Koenig brothers from Agents of SHIELD TV series. However, all weight of evidence suggests that the name signifies something other than familial kinship. I certainly intend to add a Garland to the available character options for The Dee Sanction.

Delivering a garland to someone clearly involved something more than just rocking up with a pretty arrangement of flowers for someone.

Matters Magickal and Mechanical

IMG_20141011_131147419Running The Bell Tolls last night for my local group. This will be an adventure I’ll run at conventions to playtest The Dee Sanction. I want to run this one in a single session, about 3 1/2 – and the version I ran bodes well for that. While we didn’t finish, we also didn’t play for 3 1/2 hours.

What I did find is that it’s actually quite hard to support an investigation scenario in a way that considers some (if not all) of the bases. I had the core sketched out, but who was going to be following the mystery the same way I sketched it.

In writing this adventure out for use by anyone else, I would need to give consideration to a few side treks and red herring paths. The players actually engaged in some pretty lively brainstorming on the solution and generally came up with some solid ideas. They also considered things I hadn’t, like the fact that people who do bad things – no matter how good their intentions – invariably need to be thrown in a cell and/or tortured/executed. This is Tudor England – rough justice is pretty much the order of the day where you have the wellbeing of the monarch under threat.

In respect of the 214 system itself, not enough happened to give it any significant testing. We had about four rolls in the session, one a success, two a success by Teamwork, and one a success by personal effort. I believe I need to more firmly state the bounds – and indeed the existence – of a challenge. Just allowing the story to flow along leads to situations where I found asking for roll felt awkward – but that might just have been me.

I think the scenario structure and game flow warrants defining clear challenges, whether social, physical, magickal or otherwise. I feel some boxed text coming on, with clear parameters about the situation and the degree of success required to overcome it. Faced with a wrongdoer stricken with panic and desperate to escape, you need to beat them in a 2-point Access Challenge to overcome their obstinance, for example.

The custom dice worked well for me, but I didn’t explain their significance to the players. I think I just forgot about it until mid-way through the game, which is a shame. Given the trouble of creating them, it seems silly to forget them.

They worked well for me, as I used the dice with the sigil to guide my story-telling for success and near failure alike. When one player looked to use esoteric scrying powers to determine the next step in the investigation, he used a card and rolled a 9 – one away from the success threshold of 6 to 8. Another player offered a point of Power to get the success and I noted the player roll showed a 3 – with a Magick sigil. Despite the actual lack of magickal ability, the sigil suggested a success with hermetic overtones – so, I had the assisting character accidentally trip the rolling player up, at which point her sustained a head injury against the street that left him temporarily and inexplicably blind – as if suddenly trapped somewhere in total pitch darkness. A vision of the future or the solution, perhaps?

I managed to fluff the progress of the adventure a couple of times by skipping something unintentionally and then not going back. The start of the adventure should have had the chance for some pressure, but I discounted it. Later, when I could have had a fight start, the characters found the aftermatch instead. I plan to correct that – given this is a playtest session – by rewinding to the start of the encounter again next session and running the more physical and action-orientated version of events.

That’s assuming the players come back.

I have asked for feedback, and I’ll see how that turns out. I can clearly see that for one-off and convention settings I need some tight and informative patter to get the setting across. You’re a band of investigators given powers by the Crown to investigate magickal and heretical threats to Queen Elizabeth and her dominion. Something like that.

Random character generation – with the cards I prepared – provided the basis for some interesting characters, but I blustered straight into running the adventure. I needed to be more conscientious about giving the characters, and the players, some genuine context and background.

The random cards actually meant that the combination of past career, magickal text and/or secret society jarred somewhat. It warrants discussion to determine a little about what dark deeds / actions might have forced the character to abandoned their profession and put themselves in harms way for the good of the nation. The Dee Sanction is not the easy option. Faced with heretics, witches and the daemonic, the likely end for most will be a gruesome one… at least if the Gamemaster can pull his finger out and get a battle going!

Embrace the Dark Side

character-generation-cards-dee-sanctionMindful that I have to get running playtest sessions with all of the essential components in place, I have been working on the cards for The Dee Sanction. I don’t need a complete set, but I need enough to make the process of character generation straight from the deck a random and slightly unpredictable process. On that basis, and the assumption that I might have a session with up to 6 players, I want at least 9 to 12 cards for each category of card.

The cards break down to Unethical Ends (a past profession), Hermetic Flaws (lore or an artefact that you have been exposed to in the past) and Secret Affiliation (a society or organisation you have fallen in with). In each and every instance, these cards indicate something that can be held against you. This isn’t necessarily the simple presentation of a fact – like once being a Horse Trader. The issue comes with what you chose to do or how you acted – what dark deeds and misbegotten truths lie in your past.

So, you have:

  • a profession that has bought you notoriety (if not outright condemnation and threat)
  • the knowledge from within a forbidden book of lore or magickal artefact (frowned upon, if not outright condemned, by the Church and Authorities), and
  • association with a secret society (at odds, if not outright condemned, blasphemous and treasonous, with the common law and crowned monarch, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth)

Awkwardly, all these sources provide you with more expertise and knowledge in staying alive and ahead of the game than anything covered in basic training when inducted into Walsingham’s secret gnostic taskforce, the Dee Sanction (named after both the respected Doctor John Dee and the secret act of government revoking certain aspects of An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, 1562, in respect of the learned battle against ruinous and heretical forces in league to bring about the downfall of the House of Tudor).

As a character, you have found a way to pay back your hidden debt to society. The Spymaster of Elizabeth’s Court has the potential and influence to offer you a blank slate and, perhaps, you might find some measure of spiritual absolution at the same time. While only God can offer forgiveness, you need to find it within yourself to accept and embrace it when offered – and how can you do that with such a weight on your conscience?

Each card in the character generation process presents certain traits and areas of expertise that you can tap into to drive success in a Challenge. Your Unethical Ends, for example, offer skills and experience frowned upon by the unyielding Guild system, the Church or the law of the land – but they can, nevertheless, prove useful while combating villainy, curses and monstrous assault. In The Dee Sanction, embracing your dark side may prove the only way to pay back your debt to society, your faith and your Queen.