Friday, June 17, 2016

Nobilis: The Mysterious Death of Abigail Ng

Abigail Ng, Saintess of Tea
While Nobilis started with a desperate battle to save Vancouver from Toyzilla, and Toyland from the machinations of the sinister Damian Bogsworth, this is really just another day in the lives of our enNobled heroes. No, the actual story began with the discovery of the murder of Abigail Ng, the Saintess of Tea, one of the Powers of Kirin, the Koi Goddess, who died in some abandoned warehouse near the ports of Vancouver.

I often find mysteries pose a problem to GMs not used to running them.  The most common failing, especially with a murder mystery, is the one-solution-one-clue problem.  That is, the GM has one solution for the mystery in mind and all of his clues either point to that solution, or they point to red-herrings ("the master of the house is dead, the butler did it, three clues point to him, one clue points to the wife, solve the mystery!") but he runs into a problem in that if he gives you the three real clues, you'll figure it out in 15 minutes, and if he only gives you the wrong clue, you'll go off-track.  So he fights with you and you have to hassle to get the real clues.

My solution is to create a sufficiently interesting plot that I can give clue after clue to the players and they'll find themselves unraveling this vast and complex mystery ("Yes, you discover that the clue towards the wife was a red-herring and that the butler did it, but he breaks down during the interview and says that 'they' will kill his family and then kills himself.  Digging further, you uncover that the mafia had blackmailed him into doing it, and that they still have his daughter.  But why would the mafia do it... wait, they have ties with the master's wife?  Huh, maybe she did do it after all!").

The Estate of Tea
I'm deliberately trying to invoke the themes of the film noir (hence the beautiful dead woman right at the start of my game), and the classic hardboiled story is a ball of yarn mystery: The players find a clue that directs them to the next scene, where they find a clue, which directs them to the next scene, and so on, like winding up a ball of yard.  Gumshoe, Robin Law's mystery RPG, calls this (and I could be wrong, as it's been awhile since I dug around in the terminology) the spine of the mystery: the straight through, minimal line necessary to solve the mystery.  But you can elaborate on the sides, and I intend to.

Which brings us to the next part of my preferred form of mystery design: Have enough interesting stuff going on the sides that while you might have red-herrings, they too point to something interesting.  The classic example in film noir is the revelation of corruption within institutions.  The hardboiled detective realizes some evidence has been suppressed, and then begins to suspect the cops.  After pinning one down, he realizes that they're not trying to cover up a crime, but their own ineptness and corruption (perhaps one of the cops was sleeping with the victim).  This should eventually, somehow, tie into the core story (the cops are in the pocket of the same guy who arranged for the hit, or police corruption is one of the things that contributed to the tragic misunderstanding that lead to her death, etc).  So you can afford to let your players go on crazy goose chases running after red-herrings without making them think they wasted their time.

As a rule, I try to include clues to everything in my first scene.  You have the obvious, first "ball of yarn" clue, or even a few, that can all be followed up, but some of the clues might not make sense in the first moments, but as you travel farther along the ball of yarn, the players will be able to look back and say "Oh, of course, that's why this or that!"  But that means you need to have the whole mystery worked out in advance.  Which I have.  And outlining that once more for myself is the point of this post.

The Mystery

This part is spoiler free.

When the players discovered Abigail Ng, she lay on the floor of the abandoned warehouse.  The pertinent clues to her death and killer were as follows:
Yukimura Yuji
  • Jenny Cho recognizes her.  They went to school together, where they share a journalism class.  She knows Abigail is a British exchange student, voraciously curious, that she had a friend from out of town, and that she had a boyfriend that nobody had ever met.  Abigail had given her something to hold onto, but Jenny can't remember what it was anymore.
  • Abigail has a locket at her throat that contains a picture of Yukimura Yuji, the world's greatest barista.
  • Abigail's wallet contains two dollars, a well-loved photo of herself, Yukimura Yuji and another girl, but the other girl's face has been scratched out, and a pair of Aquapunk tickets.
  • She's wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, which have been broken.
  • Close investigation of Abigail's body fails to yield a cause of death, as there doesn't seem to be one.
  • Abigail's finger seems to be pointing, but the players could not determine what she was pointing at.  She seems to be pointing at nothing.
  • Scattered around her body are:
    • Broken mirror shards
    • A revolver bullet with Abigail's name on it, the sort of bullet fired from a Colt revolver, but it has been set into the casting of a rifle round, that typically used by a sniper.
    • Lots of papers.  Some contain unreadable text, the word "Vermifex," some seem to be files for a government program called "RELICS", a bit of paper with a grain of sand taped to it with the words "They knew," "the Dragon has it in his hoard" and "The Empress still lives" and "She's coming" written on it.

The Battle

Cameron Delacroix
Their investigation is interrupted by a mouse, the prophet Thomas, who bears the Dark Tidings of Cameron Delacroix, which also bring the Excrucian Cameron Delacroix himself.  He declares that such is the fate of all who oppose him in the Excrucian war, and commands all to depart, lest they wish to join her in death, and he draws his Abhorrent weapon, One True Love or the Windflower Blade.

Whereupon he is interrupted by Meon, Desecration's Smile and one of Lord Entropy's three prime Powers, who declares that Cameron has "killed her!"  He will demand to have "the Witness" (meaning Jenny Cho) and demands that everyone attack Cameron, to prove their loyalty to the war.

Meon, Power of Desecration
Meon deploys his Ogres and Nimblejacks, and Cameron calls upon the powers of the Void to summon up his own monstrosities, and everyone fights.

Both Cameron and Meon seem intent on destroying the crime scene.  Under the guise of battling one another and the players, Cameron covertly damages Abigail's corpse and glasses, while Meon "accidentally" ruins the papers that have been scattered around her.

The Truth

Here there be spoilers

Spoiler space, in case players accidentally click through...


Seriously, Spoilers


The Killer of Abigail Ng is none other than:

The Shadow of Azrael, the King of Nothing
The Shadow of Azrael, who is nameless, the Power of Void.  Abigail has no signs of death because nothing killed her.  And she points at nothing because she points to her killer.

The Corruption of Powers and the Death of a World

So what's up with the rest?

The Jealous Rival?

Rajani Jones
The photo in her wallet depicts Rajani Jones, the power of Coffee, who was once a dear friend of Abigail, until their mutual love of Yukimura Yuji.  Yuji, the greatest barista to ever live, had to choose between the powers of Tea and Coffee, and eventually chose to become the Prophet and Anchor (and lover) of Tea, hence his sudden absence from Vancouver (He's gone off to Japan to study the art of the tea ceremony).

Yukimura and Abigail kept their relationship a secret, however, and Abigail had patched things up with Rajani by claiming that Yukimura had rejected both of them.  Rajani still doesn't know about the relationship (though she suspects), though she is in town right now, but she's in town to visit Abigail because they were investigating the disappearance of a world.

Abigail is a journalist major and has learned to apply her skillset to more than just the mundane world, but also to the supernatural world.  In so doing, she's discovered that Lord Entropy is lying to his powers about how well the War with the Excrucians has gone.  There's a world that has been completely destroyed and yet still, somehow, exists, fragments of that world that can be found in our world.  Abigail had reached out to Rajani to investigate this, and Rajani had come into town to do just that.

The Corrupt Cop?
Meon was tasked by Lord Entropy to find who was investigating his cover-up and destroy them.  Meon uncovered Abigail's investigation, and prepared to move on her.  He started by slowly desecrating Abigail's friendship with Rajani by revealing Abigail's relationship with Yuji via catspaws (though, as of this point in the story, Rajani has not yet decided if she believes), and then arranged for a hit against Abigail to silence her.  He instructed the Camorra agent to collect any documents he found and return them to him unread, and then to make it look like Rajani had done it.

The agent had a bullet from Deadwood, the Power of Death, as a favor for a task the Camorra had performed.  He loaded it up in a rifle round for his sniper rifle and prepared to use it against Abigail... only to find her already dead.  He crept up to her body, scratched out the photo of Rajani, left the bullet (it was useless to him anyway, and if someone traced it back to him, he could claim that Rajani had hired him), and moved to collect the papers when the chaos caused by Toyzilla frightened him and he made his way out, losing a considerable number of the papers in the process, and informed Meon as quickly as he could.

Meon, suspicious, made his way directly to the scene to see what he could do, and fortitiously, found a way to muddy the waters further by drawing attention away from Abigail and onto Cameron (maybe Cameron had killed her?  Meon didn't know).

The Shadow of Death

Azrael, Angel of Death, Void, Games, the Truth, and Bridges
The King of Nothing
Cameron Delacroix has waged war on the Powers of Earth for quite some time.  A few years ago, in a titanic battle with Azrael, the Angel of Death, his abhorrent weapon cut her shadow from her body.  Her shadow scampered away and contained within it the Power of the Void.

Azrael is a notoriously miserly Imperator.  She has only two Nobles: the cowboy Deadwood, her reaper and the Power of Death, and Zee, the Power of Games.  That she had a third power, and that power was a result of a wound, was a scandal Azrael was determined to cover up, until she could find her shadow and consume him, making him a part of her once again.

Knowing this, the King of Nothing fled and has been in hiding ever since.  Two additional people learned of him.  Cameron, of course, knew of the wound, and was able to track down the King of Nothing, and has been cultivating a relationship with him ever since, trying to persuade him to join him in his war on Azrael.  This is where Cameron gained his powers of the Void: He borrowed them from Azrael's shadow.  He tries to draw attention to himself in part to protect the Shadow of Azrael, because if people knew he killed Abigail, knew that he existed, he would be devoured by the Angel of Death.

The other was Abigail Ng.  An intrepid investigator, she uncovered the truth behind the wound and tracked down the King of Nothing.  Being the Power of the Void, he knows all about the places that exist where there should be none, and he began to serve as her primary source for all things regarding this dead world.

The Mirror of Abigail Ng and the Dying Deciever

Yvonka Veveltine
So, given their healthy relationship, why would the King of Nothing kill Abigail Ng?  Because she wasn't Abigail Ng.  The Shadow of Azrael immediately detected the deception and raged against the imposter, demanding to know that they had done with the true Abigail Ng, while the imposter, shocked, claimed that she was Abigail, and begged the King of Nothing to stop, but the mad power refused to listen and killed her, and then horrified by what he had done, fled.

The true Abigail Ng lies in a pocket world behind mirrors, in the realm of Yvonka Velvetine, Excrucian Deceiver.

Yvonka Velvetine and her Gentle Conspirators appear to be whomever they most admire.  Yvonka adores and loves the world.  She wants to wear its skin, to be its most beautiful denizens.  She has chosen Kirin, the Koi Goddess as her shape, stolen the Imperator away and hid her in one of her many techno-magical sarcophogai, and has worn her shape ever since, walking among the Powers of Vancouver, soaking up their love and adoration for the beautiful Kirin.

But that hasn't been enough. Lately, she dreams dreams she cannot understand.  She wants something new, something she has never wanted before, something she's never heard of, something fiercely independent and organic and authentic.  Her drive to find it results in excrucian shards who crave the same things she does, and so she builds a family around her, a family of conspirators who steal the identities of others.  While wearing those identities, they think they are that person, they forget they are Excrucian, just like Yvonka tried to forget.

One of those shards captured the beautiful Abigail and put her in a sarcophagus and wore her face and memories.  So, naturally, Yvonka knew about the Dead World, and wanted to pursue the case further, just as Abigail would... only the Shadow of Azrael knows the taste of Excrucians, for an Excrucian created him, and it killed the deceiver-shard.

The Price of Paradox

The Arch-Hipster thinks this mystery is lame and a little cliché
When Lord Entropy hid a world that had died, but was not dead.  When Cameron Delacroix fought the Angel of Death to a standstill, that which could not be was, and a paradox ripped open a tear in the world around Vancouver in a moment nobody could remember anymore, where fragments of the dead world spilled in, where people lost time, and the world tried desperately to filled it.

An Actual was born.  Nobody truly understands the Actual, not even himself.  He knows only that he hungers to finally be real, to be authentic, to be real, to be organic, and to be free, to be independent.  The Actual reached out and touched others with his yearning, and it spread like a disease.

The Arch-Hipster was born, and his blindness spread.  It infected mortal and Imperator alike, and he had infected Kirin before Yvonka captured her and wore her skin.  That very uniqueness, that beauty that drew Yvonka to Kirin was the Arch-Hipster's infection, and it's killing Yvonka.  It covers her eyes with thick-rimmed glasses, covers her arm with a sleeve tattoo, gives her an insatiable hunger for bands you've never heard of, like Aquapunk.  Cameron, frightened, is trying to find a cure to save his friend, to help her live her life free of this infection, but even he doesn't yet understand the existence of the Actual, whose grip over Vancouver grows by the day.  He tries to draw attention to himself so to save the Shadow of Azrael, true, but he's also trying to hide Yvonka's presence, and to hide her illness.

Ultimately, the Arch-Hipster represents the ultimate villain, a blind-idiot monster, hungry for indie music and vegans, raging against the system that has blinded him to what he truly is.  He is a symbol for the deceit of Lord Entropy's rule, that which the lonely Yvonka wishes to possess, but only makes her lonelier.  When uncovered, the players will either have to find a way to help the Arch-Hipster to achieve his impossible dream of true independence and authenticity, to be a real boy, or they will have to destroy him.

I'm hoping for the latter.  I'm hoping for a giant, city-smashing battle between the Tacoma and the raging, gigantic Arch-Hipster while the players work feverishly to bring the Tacoma's imperial miracles to fruition and bury the Arch-Hipster into the framework of the world where he belongs and to begin to heal the wounds of the Excrucian War.

But we'll just have to see where things go.

Break it down!

Alright, here's the basic directions of the mystery:

First, the players can uncover the importance of "Nothing" which might lead them to pursue Cameron.  This might lead them, with some assistance, to uncover the wound of Azrael, and thus the Shadow of Azrael.  This will lead to questioning, which will lead to the presence of Yvonka, and Yvonka herself will confess to her infection.

Second, the players could investigate the bullet.  That leads them to Deadwood, who will direct them to the Camorra, who will claim Rajani did it, leading them to Rajani.

They might investigate Yuji, which will lead them to the desecrated relationship with Rajani, which leads to their mutual investigation of the dead world.  This leads them to their source, the Shadow of Azrael, who will panic because he thinks they're trying to capture him for the death of Abigail Ng, which leads to the revelation of Yvonka's presence, etc.

They might investigate the relics of the dead world, which will run into opposition from Meon, the Camorra, an alliance with Rajani and they'll bump into her source, the Shadow of Azrael, etc.

Every path eventually leads to the Shadow of Azrael, which leads them to Yvonka and the Dead World, which leads them to the Arch-Hipster, except investigating the Arch-Hipster himself ("What's with the glasses and all these Aquapunk tickets?  Who the F is Aquapunk anyway?  I've never heard of them."), which likely leads to opposition from Meon, as the Arch-Hipster has to do with the paradox of the dead world which yet lives, and opposition with Cameron, who both wants all of this crazy to come out (it only helps his quest in exposing how messed up Earth is) but also wants to keep it under wraps to protect Yvonka, and an alliance with Rajani, because of the Arch-Hipster's connection to the Dead World, which leads them back to the Shadow of Azrael...

Thus, the spine, while a little meandering, is preserved at its heart, but it allows for plenty of player exploration.
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