After the last adventure, most of the players are spending their time either relaxing or gearing up for the next inevitable job. Gorak and Strauss work out the purchase of personal radios for the whole team so they can keep in better contact, and Norm sets aside his rapier and purchases a set of matching katanas which he fully intends to dual wield in combat. Max, however, is making more unique use of his time. Changing his name to Ethan Forge to protect his ever-changing identity, he goes about trying to set up an entire fake entity. His idea is to create a fictional individual, the mysterious “Mr. Mannheim”, and then build the reputation of this individual through his own actions, slowly but surely developing a persona that is widely recognized but never truly known.
GM Note: The idea behind this particular gambit is most probably rooted in D20 Modern’s somewhat nebulous “reputation” score. At level up and after certain defining adventures or actions (to be determined by the GM) the characters can increase their individual reputation scores that can be applied in specific interactions. For example: if a player is trying to convince a security guard to let them in to an exclusive event, they can supplement their diplomacy roll with their reputation bonus in the hopes that word of their deeds will allow them enough prestige to enter. This can also work against the players, however, if a certain criminal (or authority) element that they would rather avoid has heard of their actions before, making eluding that element all the more difficult.
Ethan goes out and hires several low-level financiers and web designers and has them set about the task of creating a fictional history for Mr. Mannheim: business transactions, investments, company websites and the like. Anyone who hears the Mr. Mannheim name from now one will be able to find an elaborate history of his business dealings through a simple internet search, legitimizing any claims to association the players might make.
During the process of setting all this up, the party is again buzzed into the G&H office; they have another job. Upon entering Punwick’s office they find him speaking with a blonde human woman in her mid-20s. Punwick introduces her as Amanda Higgins, and says that she is the party’s newest client.
Amanda gets straight to the point: her boyfriend, Paul Zielinski, never returned home after work a few days ago. She already informed the Harmonium but without any immediate evidence indicating that he hadn’t just run off somewhere they’re not willing to allocate resources to look for him; Sigil is a big city with lots of distractions and it’s not too uncommon for someone to just fall off the grid for a while. Amanda insists that something is wrong, though: she says that Paul always calls when he’s going to be out late, nevermind gone for days at a time, and she hasn’t received so much as a text message. She’s afraid that something happened to him and she’s willing to pay to find out what.
Ethan: “Does Paul have a history of hanging out with any kind of unsavory people? An involvement with drugs, perhaps?”
Amanda: “Absolutely not. Paul would never get mixed up with drugs.”
Ethan: “As far as you know.”
Amanda: “He wouldn’t. He knows how I feel about them.”
Ethan: “Uh-huh. Well, we’re willing to look into this. Can we see where Paul lives, perhaps?”
Amanda: “Of course.”
Nodding their farewells to Punwick, who waves them out dismissively, the group proceeds to a small apartment Paul rents in the Market Ward. Amanda opens it with her own key and invites the party to look around. The apartment is in fairly decent shape and there are no signs of a struggle; just the usual mess scattered about here and there. The answering machine on the kitchen counter blinks, indicating an unheard message, which Norm goes to check out while the rest of the party fans out and searches the rest of the apartment.
Norm hits play on the answering machine and the voice of a young man comes through the speakers.
Machine: “Hey, Paul, it’s Chad, man; me and the guys are gonna hit up the bars later tonight, have some fun. It’s gonna be awesome dude, gimme a call If you’re in, alright? Later.”
Norm: “Oh. He’s a bro.” (Turning to Amanda) “Do you know this Chad guy?”
Amanda: “One of Paul’s friends from college. I never liked him.”
Norm: “Do you have an address for him?”
Amanda: “Yes, Paul had me drop him off there several times before. Here, I’ll write it out for you.”
Amanda scrawls an address on a legal pad next to the phone and hands it to Norm, who looks at it before folding the paper away in his pocket and turning to help the others search.
Strauss and Gorak find several notebooks on the coffee table with technical scribblings in them. When they ask Amanda about it, she says that Paul was a former hacker and now works freelance jobs helping clients secure their computer systems against people like him.
In the bedroom, Ethan finds Paul’s personal computer. He gives it a cursory search and nothing stands out as immediately suspicious, but he does notice several file folders with names just a little bit too generic that don’t appear to correspond to any installed programs. He opens one of them and after clicking through a few subfolders discovers several encrypted files. Proceeding cautiously, Ethan determines through several knowledge checks that attempting to open the files without a proper password would release a bug that would reformat the computer’s hard drive, effectively destroying the data. Proceeding from there, it’s a few slowly escalating DC checks to bypass the safeguards and open the files safely.
GM Note: I purposefully tried to keep my descriptions of what exactly Ethan was doing here as vague as possible. See, the individual who plays Norm is a real-world computer scientist, and he’s very quick to call out anyone who tries to use pseudo-tech talk. I’ve never purported to know what I’m talking about in regards to computer systems, but even so I would prefer to avoid anything that made me sound like someone out of Hackers. Sure, I used a few buzzwords but I managed to avoid any kind of reference to a “mainframe” or “backtracing” so I’m gonna call it good. The lesson here is: never, ever try to include real-world elements in your story that you know nothing about… but one of the players happens to be an expert in.
Upon opening the files, he is initially disappointed. There is no thorough document detailing what happened to Paul: all he finds are a few excel spreadsheets that contain what appear to be financial transactions between Paul and someone named “Benny Jones”. The records make no mention of what these transactions were, and the denominations are in increments of only a few hundred dollars at a time.
Ethan decides to go check in with the Harmonium to see if they have any information on “Benny Jones”; Strauss and Gorak go with him. They have a talk with Alan, the officer they “worked with” last time, though this time around they don’t have to involve Joe, his boss. Alan recognizes the name and pulls up a file on him; Benny Jones turns out to be a mid-level pusher in Sigil with a fairly lengthy list of priors. While drugs are legal in Sigil, they need to be sold through the proper channels; Benny tends not to use those channels, and his record includes lovely bits of information such as multiple counts of assault and one murder accusation, though he was never convicted. The players gets a list of some of Benny’s usual operating locations before thanking Alan and leaving.
At the same time, Norm decides instead to follow up with the friend who called Paul’s house. Consulting the address he got from Amanda, he goes to see Chad to see if he knows anything about Paul’s disappearance. The address leads to a small duplex apartment just outside the Hive. Norm knocks on the door and after a few moments Chad answers.
The following conversation plays out awkwardly as Norm attempts to coerce information about a possible kidnapping out of a nervous frat boy. While Chad himself doesn’t appear to know anything about Paul’s disappearance directly, after a few half-hearted dodges he finally stammers out information similar to that that Ethan got from the Harmonium: Chad recognizes the name Benny Jones as being a drug dealer who distributed to someone named Juan who hooked them up in college.
When Norm asks who “them” are, Chad gives him three names: Mikey, Zach, and Big Tom. The three of them, along with Chad and Paul, would all go through Juan whenever they wanted a fix. Norm thanks him for the information and instead of relating it back to the rest of the party proceeds to go and question the remaining three friends.
GM Note: this is the danger of providing too much information in your campaigns. You will inevitably mention a few names or other bits of fluff that someone will presume to be a viable lead and then spend the next half hour painstakingly researching these people whose names you grabbed off the top of your head a few seconds ago. While this ultimately burns a lot of time at the table, it also means that you as a GM have to then make up and roleplay these characters on the spot and for no ultimate purpose whatsoever.
The conversations with Mikey, Zach, and Big Tom (A Halfling whom I voiced in a ridiculously high-pitched voice as a means of punishment for making me act out all this) go more or less exactly the same; they don’t know anything initially, but get panicky when Norm mentions Benny or Juan. They all eventually break down under pressure and corroborate the same story.
But Norm still isn’t done. He then goes and seeks out Juan, the college drug dealer. He asks around for a bit and is directed to a condemned tenement building in the Hive which is known as a notorious squatting community. A Tiefling woman leans against the wall outside and gestures upstairs when Norm asks where he can find Juan. He goes up a few levels stopping in at various open rooms before finally locating Juan and attempting to extract more information from him. When it becomes clear that Norm isn’t buying, Juan gets irritated and draws a pistol on Norm, demanding that he leave. Norm complies, but not before outing Big Tom as the one who directed him to this place.
GM Note: This was when one Norm’s major character traits was solidified for him: he hates short people. It’s not racism against dwarves or gnomes or anything like that, he just really, really doesn’t like people that are significantly below the average height for a human. We have no idea why, but it’s just part of the character now so we roll with it.
Finally, Norm goes and meets up with the rest of the party (who have had their course of action decided for approximately 30 minutes now) and they sort through the list of previous deal locations that Benny is known to use. They settle on scoping out an empty lot behind a convenience store in the Lower Ward first and set off to see what they can find.
As it happens, they’re in luck. As they round the side of the building they come across what certainly appears to be an illegal deal; four gnolls stand casually around a Cadillac Escalade, guns plainly visible while two men stand away from the vehicle in the middle of a handshake in which goods appear to change hands. The second human turns to leave, walking past the players and pointedly avoiding eye contact as they approach the Escalade. Benny notices them and smiles.
Benny: “Afternoon, folks. Something I can do for you?”
Ethan: “We’re looking for a Paul Zielinski. You know him?”
Benny: “Dammit. Kill these fools!”
The gnolls spring into ready positions as Benny backpedals toward the cover of the car, attempting to draw his weapon.
Gorak leads off the encounter by leveling his shotgun at one of gnolls. His first blast goes wide and blows out the rear glass of the Escalade. Ethan was less than thrilled about the damage done to what he saw as another potential source of loot.
Ethan: “GodDAMMIT, Gorak! You’re paying for that!”
As it stands, the Escalade is the most significant “casualty” the party takes as the gnolls go down fairly quickly, leaving only Benny. With his guards dead and having taken a few shots himself, Benny surrenders, begging for his life and professing that he’s just some dealer, a nobody.
Ethan: “Why did you attack when we mentioned Paul?”
Benny: “I… I know Paul. When I heard you asking about him, I just assumed…”
Ethan: “Assumed what?”
Benny: “That you were here with the cops or something.”
Ethan: “Why would you assume that, Benny?”
Benny: “Well, I’m guessing you already know that he’s… missing?”
Benny: “I may have had something to do with that.”
Ethan: (Cocks his .44) “Tell us everything.”
Benny: (speaking quickly) “Look, I really don’t know that much, okay? My bosses just told me to pick the kid up, said he was late on some payments. Me and my boys grabbed him while he was heading home one night and we shipped him off to the guys above me, that’s all.”
Ethan: “Where did you send him? Where are your bosses located?”
Benny: (Pause) “Miami.”
Apparently that wasn’t what Ethan wanted to hear. In frustration, he straight up executes him right there.
GM Note: I really didn’t expect this. It was established early on that the party I’m working with here has far more in common with the chaotic neutral mercenary band as opposed to a wandering group of helpful adventurers but I suppose I didn’t count on brutal executions as being part of their repertoire. This changed my perception of how I was going to have to handle the group’s motivations in the long term, and how I was going to handle the progression of this particular adventure in the short term. See, Benny obviously had a direct route to his higher-ups and therefore knew the locations of various portals and avenues that would have enabled them to use the drug dealers’ own routes through the Bahamas. Of course, seeing as how Ethan saw fit to empty Benny’s gray matter all over the concrete, that option was pretty much eliminated. So they have to find their own way.
With Benny dead, the party now needs to fall back on their old “what the hell do we do now?” tactic and make extensive use of the streetwise skill check. Ethan follows up on a somewhat low roll and finds a shifty-looking fellow in a back alley that swears he can get them right onto the front step of the people they’re looking for. A wise sense motive check reveals that he’s lying through his teeth and the party moves on to find a more promising source.
Norm gets a halfway decent roll and finds a somewhat more experienced planewalker who says that he can get them as close as New Orleans. Seeing as how none of the other players got better rolls, they decide to just bite the bullet and find transportation from New Orleans to their destination.
The portal is, appropriately, located in the back doorway of a small Cajun restaurant, with the portal key being a rope of Mardi Gras beads. They emerge on the other side of the portal and immediately set about securing transport to Miami, Florida. Planes are out of the question what with their not insignificant allotment of weaponry, so they take a somewhat more direct route that falls in line with their aforementioned chaotic-neutral-ness: they steal some poor schmuck’s car.
After a few disable device checks, they all pile into an old sedan and head off towards Miami. It takes them a while but they eventually reach their destination. Once again it’s time to play the streetwise game and they fan out, asking anyone who look like they might be in the know where they can find a drug ring that exports product to Sigil. While this kind of stuff is obviously kept under wraps for the most part, a decent bluff check pretending to be an interested buyer can go a long way. With a little bit of scrounging they manage to dredge up information about a local cartel that operates a packaging and distribution center out of a warehouse in the docks district.
Late that night, the party scopes out the complex. The warehouse itself is a large, hangar-like structure approximately three stories tall constructed primarily of concrete with a sheet metal roof. The structure is mostly open on either end, with large sliding metal doors having been pushed back likely for ease of loading and unloading delivery vehicles. There is no immediately obvious sign of drugs, but there is an additional walled structure in the center of the hangar that the players assume the packaging takes place, out of direct line of sight. The rear of the building sits on the edge of a pier that extends out into the waters of the Atlantic ocean. This entrance is patrolled by a gnoll in a speedboat, though the boat itself rarely ventures too far from the dock it is moored to. The entire complex is surrounded by chain link fence topped with razorwire and there are two guards at the front gate with two more on regular patrol intervals around the exterior of the complex. The party is unable to ascertain how many might be inside the smaller walled structure.
With no immediately obvious methods of entry, the party needs to establish a plan. As it happens, Ethan has a class talent explicitly titled “Plan”. Basically, it allows him to coordinate tactics with the rest of the party whenever he has a sufficient amount of time on his hands before an engagement. For a number of rounds dependent upon a d20 roll made by himself, the party gains a slowly diminishing bonus to attack rolls and skill checks. The bonus doesn’t last long, but it can make a big difference in those first few vital rounds of a combat encounter.
After a long debate over what their strategy is going to be, the party eventually decides to split itself into two groups: Norm and Gorak will use the sedan they “acquired” earlier to create a distraction at the front gate while Ethan and Strauss enter from the water, hopefully managing to bypass the distracted guards.
GM Note: Now, you’ve all heard that old adage of “don’t split the party” and have almost certainly heard the tales of woe, despair, and total party kills that seem to always follow the old Scooby-Doo idea of “Let’s split up, gang!”. While most GMs take this as an opportunity to exploit the players’ individual weaknesses and punish them for not working together as a cohesive unit, I’ve found myself taking a less hard-line approach in this particular game. In traditional D&D, the folly of splitting the party is often rooted in the diverse nature of your typical adventuring group: a spellcaster without a meat shield will find himself impaled on the business end of a spear very quickly and that same meat shield without a healer won’t be able to dish out the heavy damage and continue taking hits without a “cure moderate wounds” to bolster his hitpoints every once in a while. These diversified characters, when separated from each other, quickly learn that without the complementary abilities of their allies, they’re actually quite vulnerable.
But in a D20 Modern game like this, things are a little different. Most of my players are using firearms, which deal a roughly equal amount of damage across the board. They also do not actually *have* a healer, so they don’t have to worry so much about allocating hp buffs because they don’t have any in the first place. The result is that most of the players are differentiated largely by skill checks. With this in mind, it actually makes a fair amount of sense to split the party in certain scenarios: here, for example, the party has their more stealth-inclined characters sneak in the back way while the heavy hitters charge straight through the front door. The party has extensively scouted the location the encounter will take place in and have guaranteed that they won’t be separated by more than 100 feet or so at any one time. Sure, it would be easy to suddenly spring a Kraken on the two guys swimming around in the ocean out back, but that’s just a cheap trick to punish a split party for the sole reason of deciding to split up at all. Instead, I viewed this as a fairly clever and viable approach and I try to reward that whenever I can.
So with the plan in place, the party breaks off and prepares to kick in the door. Coordinating through their personal radios, Ethan gives the go-ahead for Norm to initiate the distraction: a distraction which, in this case, consists of ramming a mid-size sedan into the front gate of the compound while driving at highway speeds.
Norm revs the engine and puts the car in drive, slamming the gas pedal to the floor. The sedan jumps forward leaving a thick smell of burned rubber in its wake. He rounds a corner and rockets down the street toward the drug compound. The guards turn toward the sound of the vehicle and notice that it’s moving towards them well over the posted speed limit. They don’t seem to be too concerned at first, probably mistaking it for some kid showing off to his friends. That changes when Norm makes a slight adjustment and begins hurtling towards the front gate. The guard nearest to the car barely has time to jump out of the way as the car blasts past him and smashes into the gate in a crash of shattered glass and crumpling metal.
Out back, Ethan and Strauss hear the impact and make their move, pulling themselves up onto the dock and sneaking up behind the guard in the boat. Not wanting to risk drawing attention to themselves so soon, Ethan decides to forego his revolver in favor of the Taser, hitting the guard from behind. The guard fails his fortitude save and is paralyzed for four rounds; not that he’ll be able to do much after those four rounds are up, anyway, as Strauss heaves the body overboard, drowning the paralyzed gnoll before he ever has a chance to act.
With the two patrolling guards moving to the front of the compound to check out the crash and the guard on the boat disposed of, Strauss and Ethan have a clear path to the smaller enclosed structure in the middle of the warehouse.
Back out front, Norm and Gorak are having a somewhat more difficult time of it. You see, whenever you include yourselves as part of a distraction a successful outcome is always a double-edged sword: on the one hand your distraction worked, good for you; your allies are now given the freedom to carry out their part of the plan without much trouble. But on the other hand you’ve now drawn most of the enemies directly to yourself so you have that to deal with.
As the two patrolling guards come running to the entrance, Norm slams the car in reverse and attempts to extricate himself from the tangle of razor wire, chain link, and broken bumper that the crash created. Unfortunately, his drive check comes up just a little too low and he remains stuck where he is for at least one more turn. With enemies closing in on them, Gorak shouts at Norm to duck and holding his shotgun in one hand, aims over Norm through the remnants of the driver-side window and gives the nearest guard a facefull of 12-gauge shot.
The element of surprise is pretty much shot at this point (no pun intended) so there’s only one thing left to do: roll initiative.
Keep in mind that Ethan’s Plan ability is still in full effect, but its bonuses are steadily diminishing due to the whole “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” thing. Well, the enemy is well and truly contacted at this point.
On the back side of the complex, Ethan and Strauss advance on the secondary structure and stop to listen at the door. They hear a woman’s voice shout “go see what’s going on!” and footsteps approach the doorway. The door opens to reveal another gnoll guard, who Strauss wastes no time in shooting through the face, killing him instantly. Inside, the walls of the structure are lined with stacks of kilo bags of cocaine. A woman sits at the head of a large table with one of the bags in front of her, her hands glow with a faint purple light. Her eyes widen as her guard is killed in a heartbeat and these two armed individuals burst inside. She shouts something in an arcane tongue and a orb of purple light flies from her fingertips and sinks into Ethan’s chest. He shakes off the blow with minimal damage, but doesn’t escape completely unhurt. He follows up with a shot from his .44 that takes her in the arm. Strauss levels his rifle but his position in the doorway obscures his shot, and his round goes wide, putting a hole in one of the bags of bags of coke along the wall. The mage, bleeding from her arm, dashes around the table towards the exit, casting another spell at Strauss. He fails his save and finds himself unable to move any part of his body. He stands frozen in the doorway as Ethan fires another round that barely misses the fleeing mage. She takes a few more steps towards the exit but clearly didn’t think her plan through well enough; any attempt to squeeze past Strauss will provoke an attack of opportunity since his paralyzation only lasted through the end of his turn. Out of options, she desperately reaches for a Glock strapped to her leg, but two shots from Ethan and Strauss in quick succession drop her to zero hitpoints before she manages to so much as raise the weapon.
Quickly scanning the room, Ethan’s eyes settle on a book sitting on the table. He grabs it and makes a dash for the rear dock with Strauss close behind him.
Out front, Norm and Gorak are still struggling with four armed guards and a car that refuses to budge from the quagmire of twisted metal they created. Gorak takes another shot at the guards while Norm curses at the car. Three of the guards level their weapons at the vehicle and open up in a barrage of automatic weapons fire that lands a few glancing hits on the occupants. The fourth guard, hearing the gunshots coming from back inside turns and sprints back towards Ethan and Strauss.
Norm finally manages to back the car out of the mangled gate and accelerates away from the complex. Consulting with Ethan and Strauss, the party concludes that bugging out just yet would be unwise and Ethan requests that Norm and Gorak make another pass on the gate to keep the heat off of he and Strauss while they try to escape. Throwing the car into a 180 degree turn, Norm accelerates back towards the entrance through a hail of gunfire and manages to ram into one of the guards still standing outside the gate. Taking the full brunt of a car moving at 60 mph, the guard is crushed to death beneath the tires as Norm speeds past the entrance once again.
Meanwhile, Ethan and Strauss have started taking fire from the guard who broke off from the front entrance and Strauss has taken a decent hit. They conclude that they’re not going to get out on their own and tell Norm to circle back around to pick them up.
GM Note: at this point, things have actually started to get rather comical at the table. Due to the less-than-ideal integration of vehicle combat into on-foot gameplay in the D20 modern system, attacks from a moving car can be a little ridiculous. For example: Norm has essentially been doing strafing runs up and down the street outside the complex trying to run people over with a beat-up old four-door. Given the incredible speed increase a vehicle gives you, he is able to rocket up the street, make a ram attack on whatever guard he can see, and still be able to flip around and do it again on his next turn. Of course, all good things must come to an end.
Accelerating back towards the complex, Norm swings the car through the opening created by his earlier ramming of the gate and speeds through the interior of the warehouse, hoping to bring the car to a halt right next to Ethan and Strauss who have now made their way onto the dock. The available open space in which one can manage to fit, nevermind maneuver a car is rather sparse on the backside of the pier, however, and all it takes is one bad drive check for disaster to strike.
And strike it does. Norm rolls just below the check required to make the tight corner between the warehouse and the edge of the pier and fishtails out of control. The car slides off the edge of the pier with its tires squealing in protest (and its occupants squealing in terror) and smashes into the speedboat before settling into the water and slowly starting to sink.
At this point, any hope of escape is more or less gone, as Norm and Gorak are trapped in a car slowly filling up with water and Strauss and Ethan are wounded with three guards closing in on them. The next few rounds are a chaotic mess, with Norm and Gorak making repeated strength checks to pull themselves out of the car against the rush of water. It takes them two rounds to fully escape the vehicle while the remaining guards continue to spray them with weapons fire. With Ethan and Strauss taking up a valiant defensive action, they buy enough time for the two waterlogged members of the party to pull themselves back up to dry land and together they manage to finish off the three remaining combatants, though no one escapes without a few holes in them.
Ethan expresses a desire to loot the place clean, reminding the party what a collection of drugs like the one they’ve found could go for on the street. But before they can put together a plan for how they could actually manage to move all that product sirens sound in the distance and they know they’re out of time. Not willing to leave completely empty handed, Gorak grabs a few bags of the stuff as the party books it out of the area in search of someplace to look over what they’ve found and heal up.
Securing a room in a run-down motel for the evening, the party lays out the book that Ethan secured during the fight and attempt to gain some kind of lead. The book appears to have been used for record-keeping, and has a list of clients that have purchased product from the former cocaine packagers at the warehouse. Flipping through the pages, the party finds the largest and most frequent purchases were made by someone named Jack Flash.
GM Note: Yes, that Jack Flash. I’m a huge classic rock fan, and something about the name “Jack Flash” just struck me as being the perfect moniker for a drug dealer, though apparently it’s actually a reference to Keith Richards’ gardener. Go figure. I’ve also included a reference to another classic folk rock song in this adventure, but I’ll leave that up to you to figure out.
The party rests up at the motel, and patches themselves up as best they can with a few first aid kits they brought along with them. The following day, they hit the streets and ask around about this “Jack Flash” character. Their first few streetwise checks are a bit sub-standard and they don’t find anyone in the know. This takes up a few hours of the day before they start to make any real headway. They eventually encounter a few people who turn and walk away upon hearing the name, apparently not wanting to get mixed up in whatever the party is heading towards. This is simultaneously promising and disconcerting to the investigating party. Finally, they’re able to get a straight answer from a few disreputable looking types down a side street. Jack Flash is apparently a big-name criminal in the Miami area. A gnoll that deals primarily in drugs, he also has his paws in weapons smuggling, protection rackets, and there’s been talk going around recently that he’s starting to get mixed up in kidnapping, though nobody has any first-hand knowledge of it.
Figuring that they’ve found Paul’s kidnappers, the party pries Jack Flash’s location out of the two lowlifes and head off to survey the scene. Jack Flash owns a nightclub called the Neon Lady in South Beach from which he oversees his criminal activities; it’s also a popular entertainment spot for those in the Miami underworld. The front door is guarded by a bouncer who blocks entry to anyone he doesn’t like the look of, meaning that just walking through the front door is unlikely to bear fruit. But also knowing that the inside of the club could be jam-packed with hardened criminals, the party isn’t willing to resort to shooting their way in just yet either.
Circling around to the back side of the establishment, they find a much more promising means of entry: a rear service entrance offers access to cooks and custodial staff without needing to bypass the bouncer. And fortunately for the party, one of the cooks is leaning against the wall taking a smoke break. There is brief consideration given to just killing the poor bastard and taking his clothes so that one of them can sneak in. Thankfully, cooler heads win out and they decide instead to just bribe him. Ethan calls the man over and with a successful diplomacy check (and an appropriate amount of cash offered up to sweeten the deal) the cook agrees to fork over his uniform and head home for the day (which basically just means that he’s decided to find a different job: you don’t come back the next day after letting people infiltrate your boss’ place while wearing your uniform).
While Ethan tries on the cook’s uniform, Norm further examines the back of the building and locates a junction box that provides the building with power. Slowly, a plan of attack begins to form:
Gorak and Strauss will enter the club through the front door, unarmed so as not to prompt suspicion, and present themselves as, ah, “pharmacists” who have a contact with the Miami PD who is able to get them access to confiscated drugs, while Ethan infiltrates the kitchens dressed as a cook, prepared to offer backup. Meanwhile, Norm will secure transport to be used for a getaway and wait to cut power to the building if necessary. They will all keep in contact via their personal radios and just hope that nothing goes too wrong.
At this point the party goes about their individual tasks. Norm explores a nearby short-term parking lot and hotwires a truck that the party can use to escape in a hurry if need be, and then picks up a pair of insulated rubber gloves from a convenience store, his reasoning being that the rubber will protect him from the probable electric shock that would accompany slicing through an electrical line with a katana.
GM Note: This was good thinking on Norm’s part as I most certainly would have hit him for a few solid dice worth of electricity damage had he attempted the action without some kind of protection; and with his hitpoints that could have ended very, very badly.
Ethan enters the club through the service entrance and attempts to blend in with the rest of the kitchen staff. Only one other cook seems to notice that he’s not on the regular roster and a successful bluff check convinces him that the previous cook went home sick and Ethan showed up to fill in for him. This is met with an indifferent shrug from the other cook who then goes about his business. Ethan then tries to figure out how to actually cook something so as not to blow his cover.
With Norm and Ethan in place, Strauss and Gorak proceed toward the front entrance. They introduce themselves as potential business assets, though it takes Gorak flashing one of the bags of cocaine for the bouncer to seriously consider their request. He waves them inside and calls over one of the club’s other security guards to lead them up to Jack Flash’s office on the second floor. Outside the door to the office is a towering bugbear in a pinstripe designer suit. The security guard addresses the bugbear as Slim and tells him that Strauss and Gorak want to speak to the boss. The bugbear sneers at the two newcomers, a brief flash of gold appearing in his mouth, but he turns and enters the office anyway, closing the door behind him. He remains inside for a few moments before the door opens again, Slim standing aside to allow Strauss and Gorak to enter while the other security guard returns to the ground floor.
Strauss and Gorak cautiously enter the office, trying to keep as much distance between themselves and Slim as possible. As the bugbear closes the door behind them, the throbbing bass music of the club dulls to a slight, rhythmic thud in the background. Standing at a bank of one-way windows that allow the owner to look over his establishment while still remaining out of sight is Jack Flash himself; a gnoll that stands slightly shorter than the average, he wears a white leisure suit and smokes a Cuban cigar with his left hand while his right rests on an elaborately carved cane. He turns and smiles as the two mercenaries enter, and when he speaks it is with a deep southern drawl that would have been more at home in 1800s Louisiana than 21st century Miami.
Jack Flash: “Well now, what have we got ourselves here, then?”
Strauss: “Mr. Jack Flash?”
Jack Flash: “The one and only. And who might the two of you be?”
Strauss: “We’re just simple businessmen, hoping to take just a moment of your time if you’ll hear us out.”
Jack Flash: “Why, certainly. Jack Flash is always willing to listen to any new opportunities that may come his way. Now, what is it you’d like to discuss?”
Jack moves away from the glass overlooking the club and sits down behind an oversized desk on the far side of the room, placing his cigar in an ash tray and gesturing for Strauss and Gorak to take a seat in the two chairs facing the desk. Slim also strides to the far side of the room and takes up a position behind and to the right of his boss, his hands clasped in front of him.
Gorak begins the meeting with typical dwarven tact:
Gorak: “We understand you tend to deal in drugs.”
Jack Flash: “Oh, well I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. I’m a fine, upstanding member of this community.”
Strauss: “We have no doubt of that, Mr. Flash-”
Jack Flash: “Please, call me Jack.”
Strauss: “Alright, Jack. We have no doubt of that, we’re simply speaking in hypotheticals here.”
Jack Flash: “Ain’t nothin’ hypothetical about accusin’ a man such as myself of dealing in… illicit product.”
Slim cracks the knuckles in his right hand, as if in warning.
Strauss: “Very well then. Let’s just say then, that if a certain portside operation were to have been disrupted recently, and if we were to know certain individuals of authority that could get us access to the goods being manufactured there, we might be willing to route those goods to you, for an appropriate price.”
Jack Flash: “This sounds like awful shady business boys, why should I get myself mixed up in this?”
Gorak: “We’re new in town, but it seems to us that you have a pretty good handle on all of this; if we get the product back to you, that means you can keep it safe as you see fit. We’re just trying to help sort out all the unnecessary beura-, boora-… official stuff.
Jack Flash: “I see. So what you’re saying is, you’d be willing to get this contact of yours to siphon off some of my confiscated… merchandise so that I could once again ensure that such vile substances stay out of the hands of the good, innocent individuals of our community?”
Jack Flash: “I like what you’re telling me here, boys, and as much as I’d like to believe you’re seekin’ to help me in my noble crusade and all, I’m afraid I can’t just take your word for it.”
Gorak reaches inside his jacket and pulls out one of the bricks of cocaine, dropping it on the desk in front of Jack, who stares at it for a moment before giving a long, low whistle.
Jack Flash: “Well now, if that ain’t a heavy helping of the devil’s dandruff.”
Strauss: “As we said, we’re as good as our word.”
Jack Flash: “If you don’t mind, I need to verify the authenticity of this wretched substance.”
Strauss: “By all means.”
Jack draws a butterfly knife from a pocket and expertly flicks it open, making a small cut in the side of the bag and drawing the blade out coated with a thin line of the white powder. He leans forward and inhales the substance through his nose, straightening back up quickly and continuing to sniff loudly while blinking furiously as the drug enters his system.
Jack Flash: “Ooooooh Lord, but that is just terrible. Terrible! Can you imagine if this were to get into the streets? Why, some poor child could be exposed to this and I just don’t know if I could sleep at night, knowing this evil stuff had escaped destruction.”
Gorak: “Our thoughts exactly.”
Jack Flash: “The two of you have convinced me: I think we can do business together and help make this town a better place for everyone.”
Strauss: “Perhaps we should celebrate our new partnership with drinks?”
Jack Flash: “An excellent idea.”
GM Note: The players actually visibly smiled at this point, thinking that Jack would call down to the kitchens for drinks, which would then allow Ethan to sneak their weapons up to them and shift the odds in their favor, allowing Jack to be easily captured or coerced. Of course, I wouldn’t be much of a GM if I let them get away with it that easy.
Jack stands up from his seat at the desk and turns around to open a cabinet behind him, removing a bottle of expensive-looking scotch from the top shelf.
Jack Flash: “This is a little something I keep stored away for special occasions.”
Strauss: “And it looks fantastic. But perhaps we should call for some champagne…”
Jack Flash: “You don’t appreciate my selection?”
Strauss: “No, it’s just that champagne is a bit more traditional for this kind of-”
Jack Flash: “Drink your scotch.”
Strauss silently picks up his glass, with Gorak following suit. They all toast their new business arrangement while the players ponder what their next move should be. Shortly, Gorak comes to the rescue.
Gorak: “Got anything to eat?”
Jack Flash: “Ah, of course, how inconsiderate of me. Slim, run down to the kitchens and get us some… shrimp cocktail acceptable to you gentlemen?”
Both Strauss and Gorak nod, trying to mask their relief. Slim doesn’t move for a moment, as if unwilling to leave his boss’ side but ultimately he exits the room, the sound of the club’s music briefly pouring into the office as he opens the door, fading away again as he closes it.
Ethan, who has been listening in on the conversation from the kitchens views this as his time to strike. He grabs a champagne bucket and stashes a pair of pistols in it before pouring a bag of ice over them to conceal them. Picking up the bucket in one arm he exits the kitchens and heads for Jack Flash’s office, passing Slim on the main floor, who doesn’t seem to pay him any attention.
Upstairs, Strauss and Gorak are alone with Jack Flash, and they decide to press the real reason for their being here.
Strauss: “So Jack, would you happen to know anyone named Paul Zielinski?”
Jack Flash: (Pause) “Why do you ask?”
Strauss: “We understand him to have done business with some of your people before. We know him from back in Sigil, just checking to see if we’ve got any similar contacts.”
Jack Flash: “I’m afraid you boys are misinformed. I don’t know anyone by that name.”
Strauss: “Are you sure?”
Jack Flash: “Of course I’m sure. What exactly are you getting at?”
At this point, Ethan enters the room, clutching the champagne bucket in one arm and closing and locking the door with the other.
Jack Flash: “I thought we agreed not to send for any champagne?” (Beat) “Wait, who are you? Where’s Slim?”
Not bothering to try and come up with a ruse, Ethan plunges his arm into the champagne bucket, withdrawing Strauss’ desert eagle and tossing it to him in a hail of ice cubes and water droplets. Strauss snatches it out of the air and turns on Jack Flash, pointing the large pistol at his face.
Strauss: “Let’s try this again: where’s Paul?”
Jack Flash: “I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
Strauss pulls back the single-action hammer on the Desert Eagle, while Ethan hands the Colt Python off to Gorak and draws his own S&W 629.
Strauss: “One more time. Paul.”
Suddenly a loud bang is heard at the office door, and as the three players turn to look at it Jack Flash grabs his cane and pulls it apart, a long, slender blade sliding out of its concealed scabbard. Jack makes a swing at Strauss who manages to jump back out of the way just as the door to the office crashes inward, Slim stepping inside holding a large lead pipe and flanked by two guards with pistol-gripped shotguns.
Ethan: “Norm! Kill the lights!”
In the alley behind the building, Norm (who has been standing in a ready pose with a katana held above his head for some time now) finally is allowed to jump into action, slicing through the junction box and then rushing inside the building to offer assistance.
Inside, the club has been plunged into silence and darkness, with only the confused murmurings of the patrons offering much sound. That doesn’t last long, however, as upstairs combat is initiated and Strauss punctures the silence with the kind of boom that only a .50 Action Express round can provide.
On the lower level there is instant chaos. The screams of the female patrons rise in terrified unison before the echo of the pistol shot has entirely faded and there is a frenzied rush towards the front door. The bouncer posted there doesn’t even bother trying to hold back the tide of people as he attempts to work his way toward the overlooking office without getting trampled. He reaches the stairs just before Norm exits the kitchens and with his back turned offers an easy target as Norm’s katana slices him from hip to shoulder blade and he falls to the ground dead.
Upstairs the fighting in the office is cramped, frantic, and dark. The three players concentrate fire on Slim as he wades into the middle of the room swinging the lead pipe in a wide arc. They manage to step out of the way of the improvised club and Strauss and Gorak retaliate with a few quick shots from their pistols. Jack Flash again swings his sword cane wildly at Strauss, who ducks under the clumsy attack easily, but one of the shotgun-wielding guards fires off a round that peppers Ethan’s arm with 12-gauge shot. The other guard, who has not yet stepped into the office, notices Norm cut down the bouncer on the ground floor, and steps back to the top of the stairs before raising his shotgun and firing off a blast. The shot goes wide and Norm dashes up the stairs, closing to melee range and slashing at the guard who awkwardly deflects the blow with his shotgun.
Slim focuses in on Strauss and brings the pipe down with both hands, crushing one of the two chairs in front of the desk as Strauss rolls out of the way and delivers another wounding shot to the bugbear’s abdomen. Gorak and Ethan fire towards the guard at the door, both landing solid hits while Jack Flash leaps up on the desk and delivers a grazing cut along Strauss’ back. One of the guards hits Gorak with a shotgun blast but the other can’t manage to swing his aim to bear against Norm from such close range. Norm then presses the attack further and lands a hard slash against the guard’s arm.
Slowly but surely the players continue to wear the other combatants down, dropping first one guard and then the other before all closing in around Slim. With blood flowing from half a dozen gunshot wounds and more than a few cuts, the towering bugbear takes one last hit and staggers heavily to the side, attempting to prop himself up on the lead pipe before finally breathing his last and collapsing to the floor in a heap.
With the major threats taken out, all the players turn their attention on Jack Flash. Lightly wounded, the players have learned by now not to take any chances with a potential lead and so attempt to use Ethan’s Taser to subdue the gnoll. Ethan’s shot misses, however, and deciding not to take the time to reload, the rest of the party resorts to a good old-fashioned beatdown.
GM Note: There’s really no nice way to say it, but D20 Modern rules for subdual damage suck. They indicate that a combatant needs to inflict nonlethal damage equal or greater to their opponents constitution score in order to achieve a knockout punch. Here’s the thing though: that damage needs to be dealt from a single blow. Now consider that unarmed attacks (without feats) do 1d4+str nonlethal damage. This makes it nearly impossible to ever knockout anyone with an even halfway decent con score. Perhaps it’s realistic, as you rarely ever see anyone actually getting knocked out in a fistfight, but it makes subduing an opponent highly impractical and annoying in game terms, so our group decided to scrap those rules. Nonlethal damage now stacks, and an enemy is considered “knocked out” whenever their accumulated nonlethal damage exceeds their current hitpoint value; this makes nonlethal combat far more viable and less frustrating for us, which results in more fun.
As Jack feebly tries to defend himself from the onslaught of attacks, he slowly grows weaker and weaker before Gorak marches up and puts an end to the whole thing by smashing the remaining chair over Jack’s head in one mighty blow, knocking him unconscious and almost certainly doing some serious long-term cranial damage.
Scooping up the unconscious gnoll, they dash for the exit as police sirens once again signal that it’s time to beat a hasty retreat. With Jack Flash slung over Gorak’s shoulder, the party exits through the kitchens and pile into the truck that Norm had previously secured, speeding away from the wrecked club and grumbling about how they didn’t have time to burn it down.
GM Note: Again, the fixation on fire.
As they flee the scene, Jack Flash slowly begins to come to and the players don’t waste any time in questioning him again. Unarmed, with hands bound and no protection to speak of, he is somewhat more accommodating to the “requests” of the four mercenaries with guns pointed at his head. He tells them that Paul is being kept at a facility farther inland on the eastern outskirts of the city. He gives them directions and they all settle in for the ride.
After a while, Jack directs them down a side road and tells them to bring the truck to a stop in front of a building not much bigger than an outhouse. The players are skeptical but allow him to approach the building and knock on the door. A narrow peephole slides open in the door and then slides closed again. A brief fumbling is heard from the opposite side and then a door swings open to reveal another gnoll in a lab coat looking somewhat confused. Ethan points a gun at the gnoll and demands to see Paul. Panicked, the gnoll’s eyes dart to Jack Flash who simply nods grimly.
The gnoll in the lab coat turns and leads them into the building, which really only serves to house a staircase that descends below ground. At the bottom of the stairs is a long hallway that leads to an office at the end. The hallway itself is lined with numerous cells, sealed off with impact glass. Some of the cells are empty, some occupied, and others store corpses not yet hauled away. Of the survivors, all of them appear to be in various states of delusion.
They finally reach the cell holding Paul, but the party’s attempts to communicate with him are met only with mindless jabbering.
Ethan: “What the hell did you do to him?”
Gnoll Scientist: “We’ve been working with various forms of mind-influencing tactics; an attempt to ensure more loyal bodyguards, more diligent suppliers, and what have you.”
Ethan: “Was that what you were doing with the drugs at the docks?”
Gnoll Scientist: (Nods) “Our most recent and most promising breakthroughs had been with magic. Imbuing the drugs with suggestion spells and then having the subject inhale the substance proved to be quite potent.” (Looks at Paul) “There were of course still kinks to be worked out.”
Strauss: “So why was Paul so important?”
Jack Flash: “He wasn’t. Paul was just some kid we supplied to who was having some trouble paying his dues. Instead of breaking his kneecaps, I had Benny bring him in so we could make use of him.”
Ethan: “So you’ve been kidnapping people who don’t keep up with their payments and using them as lab rats?”
Jack Flash: “Well, I’m not sure I’d phrase it so crudely…”
Continuing his theme of kneejerk violence he’d established this session, Ethan wordlessly places the muzzle of his revolver against Jack Flash’s forehead and pulls the trigger, killing the helpless gnoll instantly and spraying the walls with all kinds of unseemly viscera. He then rounds on the horrified scientist.
Ethan: “We’re going to leave you alive. You tell everyone what happened here, and let them know that this is what Mr. Mannheim does to people who displease him.”
Gnoll Scientist: “Who?”
Ethan: “You’ll know the name soon enough.”
GM Note: While it hadn’t really gone anywhere yet, this was nonetheless a nice nod to the behind-the-scenes character flavoring that had gone on at the start of the adventure. I’ll admit that this particular bit of fluff stays a bit stagnant for a while as the players continue to build up the Mannheim Mystery, but it’s nonetheless an indication to me that they’re trying to aim for some roleplaying flavor and it’s sufficient to make me toss out a few extra experience points.
Grabbing the scientist by his collar, the players toss the gnoll scientist into one of the unoccupied cells and seal the door. Then Ethan opens the door to Paul’s cell, who is still confused and rambling, and the party returns aboveground, calling the police and leaving an anonymous tip from Mr. Mannheim about illegal experiments being conducted on unwilling subjects at a facility outside Miami. They don’t stick around to take credit (see: probably also be arrested for murder).
They transport Paul back to Sigil, and over the course of the trip he begins to regain some of his lucidity. The players explain to him where he’s been and what likely happened to him over the last few days, to which he responds at first with shock and then with shame, knowing that he’ll have to face Amanda with this one way or another. The party doesn’t exactly ease the tension of his situation any; when they drop him off with Amanda back in Sigil she instinctively wants to know where he’s been.
Gorak: “He got kidnapped by his drug dealers and forced to snort a bunch of magic brainwashing cocaine.”
Amanda “You WHAT?!”
The party swiftly makes their exit, leaving behind Amanda’s angry shouts and Paul’s pitiful defenses to make their way back to the G&H offices. They may have broken up a couple, but they also saved a number of people from mind-slavery and they’re still gonna get paid for it: all in all, a successful job.