Friday, February 25, 2011

Recent Game

I've been thinking hard about how to write this up. I'd like to do blow-by-blow Actual Play examples but I simply don't have the time to do it right now. If I wait my memory of the game will fade. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to give a sort of overview with some notes about what we learned or how we approached several elements of it.

We'll see if that's satisfying.

What I'm Testing Right Now
Thunder Strike--a damage blast (area/explosive) that comes with a sort of Flash-Bang effect. This is a case of mixing a Resisted Attack (Flash-bang) with damage-dealing capabilities. As I've said before, this is something that a lot of games I've played handle in ways I didn't find satisfying (Champions being an exception). The fact that we can link non-damage effects (the flash) to Damage Points is, I consider, a serious strength of JAGS.

On the other hand, the handing time for these attacks is high. So you don't want too many of them.

The Game
We've had a history of playing academics ever since the early days of Call of Cthulhu and found that playing professors (or journalists) had a certain appeal to it. For this game we considered being college professors but scaled it back to High School teachers at a New England school. The setting was modern-day and we knew the scenario would fall into the paranormal genre.

The set up was that we were:

  • 40 CP, 0 AP teachers
  • We were trapped in terms of being forced to teach at a dismal private school. We couldn't "just get fed up and leave." The GM left it up to us as to why that was.
  • We understood there would be some element of us gaining paranormal abilities but we didn't know of what sort.

I played Winston Crawford an ex-journalist who'd worked for Rolling Stone (amongst others) who had had a psychotic breakdown (barricading himself in a hotel with alcohol and firearms and having a standoff with the police). After that, he was pretty washed up since he tended towards the "Conspiracy theory" of reporting anyway. After realizing he would go by "Mr. Crawford," in deference to Ozzy Osbourne I changed his last name to Crowley. I decided my character was large (12 PHY) and obese (20 BLD). It's one of the vanishingly few times I have played a fat character. I was teaching History and Journalism.

The other player (K) played Dr. Stacy Peril MIT Bio-Chem genius who was a student of a for-real (now dead) 'mad scientist' that had experimented on people and created spontaneous human combustion. She was considered dangerously unethical in the scientific community and had come to the school having few other options. She was teaching Science and some language classes (she had Linguist skills).

Best Practice: Have the PCs Know Each Other
We believe there are sets "best practices" (consulting speak for "good ideas") that you can keep mind of during games. For this one our best-practice was: Have the PCs have a relationship before the game starts. We think this saves time and establishes the PCs as friends even if their personalities might not jive all that well.

I decided I had broken the Human Combustion case but, until it was obviously real, no one believed me. I had met Dr. Peril and we had become friends. We decided I followed her to the school as a friend when I realized my career was washed up as well.

Best Practice: Establish Boundaries Before Character Creation
If the GM wants to set up some kind of boundary (in this case: "You are stuck at the school") the best-practice is to simply state it and have the players determine why this is the case. It prevents someone from going "my character is so brilliant she'll just go into business for herself!" or "I made a guy who's rich--I just quit the school and retire young").

Getting this kind of agreement at the person-to-person level before the game starts is, we think, usually the right approach.

Player-Generated Content
We were asked to come up with some activity we were involved with and also to name our favorite and least favorite students. I came up with a plot around the students provoking a response from a land developer. The other player, K didn't really have any great ideas so we let that slide until later.

NOTE: Player-generated content can raise the energy of play a lot if players can come up with things they like that work well with the GM's vision. However, it doesn't always work and even great players can have a bad day. In the game K had the idea for breeding mutant frogs. This wasn't an electrifying idea since it didn't involve any other NPCs to a great degree and, I suspect, didn't much fit with the GM's vision for a mundane (if viciously petty) academic life.

Best Practice: NPCs
There were 13 teachers (including us) and the principle. The GM gave us the list of NPC names. I think a best-practice we didn't really use is for the GM to give us printed sheets of major NPCs with one-line descriptions. It helps with the learning curve. As it stood, I was next to a computer so I took notes on screen during the game.

The Game Opening
I started out in the principle's office (Principle Birdthistle--a great act of naming) getting chewed out about my students news-paper causing problems in the town. While sparring with him I discovered that he had a plan (I palmed a document on his desk) that showed that half the teachers were getting kicked out of their (kind of nice) offices to take up work in the open-plan library.

As this was a 'fate worse than death' and the people picked to retain their offices smacked strongly of favoritism, it was scandalous.

Our opening act of play had us meeting other teachers and interacting with them. All of them were "losers" in one sense or another (some less than others) and I had a good time disseminating the data about the up-coming office move to try to have a preemptive mass-complaint block the de-officing.

We were also introduced to some students who were bad sorts and ran a paramilitary drill-team off campus with people from the town. They were kind of ominous (smart, fairly crisp, and definitely dangerous sounding).

The opening came to a head when one of the senior teachers apparently vanished leaving his office locked and a trail of clues that led the two PCs down to the un-lit basement with old water-damaged classrooms where the power was out.

We discovered he'd had a secret workshop where he was examining two artifacts:

  • A crown of steel with hammered gold leaf and fake glass gems. It had 12 horses inscribed on it.
  • A triptych (a painted cabinet with three illustrations that tell a story) which indicated several scenes of mass-slaughter including the Aztec Consecration of the Great Pyramid where perhaps 80,000 or more people were sacrificed over four days.
We found his notes and a card to the faculty: he had discovered these artifacts on the school ground and fled because of them. His examination of them suggested that:
  1. There was a 52 year cycle (more or less) that involved great bloodshed
  2. We were coming up on the next one (one of the first had been the Consecration of the Great Temple)
  3. The remaining 12 faculty were "involved"
  4. There would be a mass-death and this time, at the end of the cycle, the 5th world would end (the Aztec mythology held that there were four dead worlds before ours and we were the 5th and last).
In short, he believed that the school was created (originally, in 1908) to help usher in the end of the world through mass-slaughter. We, the 12 faculty--indicated by the 12 horses--would facilitate that.

We hid the artifacts and told no one.

The GM hit all the right notes with the faculty conflicts making us losing our offices seem like the worst indignity a person could suffer. The triptych was also interesting from a pacing story: each picture (one of which was Cossacks burning a town full of people with a weird star representing the 1908 Tunguska Event overhead) involved History and Art Appreciation rolls to discern the meaning from it. When we got to the bloody-slaughter of the Aztec Consecration of the Great Pyramid it made for a high point.

The counter-point was that the crown was "junk"--it was missing the velvet coverings and the notes said that although it once had real gems of some sort the teacher who had vanished felt they had been sold off at some time in its history.

However: the 12 horses represented us. And the image of the crown had good symbolism. The crown itself had two rings (one for the forehead, one around the top to hold up the upper half) and the second was decorated with the horses.

Act 2: Flight
In a dream I saw the crown, grown huge, sitting out in the marching field but the horses were between the two rings like a carousel. 

Both of our characters begin experiencing a sort of "awakening" where we became far more perceptive to the world around us and yet strangely apart from it. We felt good

In a scene I found myself encouraged by an inner sense to go up in the bell tower--to get to a high place. I couldn't open the (locked) door. But I was able to pull myself up ... effortlessly. When I reached the balcony, climbing (impossibly) with my hands, I realized I could step off into space. I did--and flew. I flew at around 1000 miles per hour, accelerating almost instantly. 

It was a matter of perception: like I'd always been able to fly and now remembered how. Flying was kind of like seeing one of those 'magic eye' images. As long as we were flying we were able to keep the perspective.

I called the other PC and met her out on the balcony of her on-campus apartment. She couldn't see me until I almost landed in front of her (some kind of "cloak" filed). I reached out to her and when she saw me flying, she was able to--and I helped her up.

When we landed in the field we both lost the perspective and had to walk back to campus--more than a little disappointed.

Now, with a sign, we researched and found the missing teacher and called him. He was able to give us a bit more information: The crown was created by people following an ancient ritual. You kill people, you get power--kill a lot of people and you might, I don't know, wind up in charge of Russia. Or all of Central and South America. But if you do it at the wrong time--which is now--the world ends.

Someone ... here ... is going to do it. And somehow we're going to be a part of it. There are 12 of us--like 12 disciples. He left because he wanted no part of that. He told us that the artifacts were in a hidden safe in the gallery above the old auditorium.

I checked it out--it was true, the safe was there (empty).

Other people were having strange dreams. One of the teachers lost it, pounding, somehow on the roof of his apartment (he was flying in his sleep). He dreamed he was being chased by an evil horse. We were all worried because everyone seemed to be under more and more pressure.

That night I saw "something"--my perspective came back--I could see the gravity wells around stars and the orbital plane of the moon and airplanes overhead. I could see something hovering above the school about 10 miles up. I flew up to it. Another teacher was there (the 'Failed Maestro'). The artifact was, however, a fully developed carousel floating in air with four rings of 12 horses and other things (chimera, a grand piano, and so on). It was partially lit hovering in the clouds.

I got the other PC and the flying teacher (we explained what we knew) and went onto the carousel. There was a throne flanked by black horses. There were five levers and written in Italian the names for Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, and Mars.

We threw the control for the Moon. The carousel lit up and started playing music and turning. We rose at impossible speed--far faster than even we could fly--into the sky--and then space. We saw the earth in half-shadow. Then the sun naked in space. Then the moon. We were coming down and "landed" in a crater. There were trees ... a small Italian looking villa. Nothing moved.

We exited the carousel ... and went in.

During the elapsed time the GM set up several developing conflicts. A couple were between NPCs and my conflict with (a) the developers in town (being born out through the Journalism class) and (b) the spooky drill-team kids who were smart and hostile. The other player's character had some interactions but didn't engage with a lot of non-investigative drama but did interact.

Audio-Visual Gimmicks
The GM had his laptop with him and used it during the adventure. He played the Eagle's Journey of the Sorcerer when we flew the first time and had a different classical musical piece for each of the planets when we went on the carousel (the moon was the creepy "Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium").

When we landed on the moon he had an image of a Medici Family Vila to show us.

Done correctly (and it was done well here) it is quite effective. I don't think every game should be an A-V extravaganza however with a small group--with good pacing--you can create a sense of mystery so long as the music doesn't go on too long or doesn't go over the talking (content). I think the game has to be strong enough to stand on its own with just the words before this is a good idea. Also: if a player really isn't on board with a brief musical interlude (he only played a few moments of the pieces, not the whole thing) it really kills the mood.

With not-a-lot happening during the beginning of the session in terms of solving the mystery the GM was required to do some serious pacing. He did a good job: the drill team (which would've, later, become a major antagonist) was developed well--and there were a few conflicts that didn't 'go anywhere' but gave us an opportunity for roleplaying and had a good "academics" feel to them (including the overpowering smell of marijuana in the teacher's complex--leading to "who's doing it!?" questions).

Final Act
The Medici Villa was exactly that: it bore the family crest and seemed to have been transported to the moon. It was mostly empty: there was a chapel with five windows telling a story of the five worlds. One destroyed by rocks falling and breaking open into fire. One was destroyed by floods. One by jaguars (terrible dark monsters with red eyes), one by earthquakes, I think.

Then there was Earth as all that was left.

In the creepy, empty villa we encountered a "ghost"--a horses head with glowing turning 'planets' for eyes and 13' long spiders legs sprouting from its neck. It gave us scrolls to read (they were in Italian by K's character could decipher them given time). The villa looked to be hundreds of years old and only somewhat magical. Our senses were now honed--we were drawn to a full crown in one of the villa's towers--surrounded by mechanical spear traps.

The ghost never got close to us--but we were afraid of it (it seemed fully corporeal) and we had feelings of being watched. We retreated (my character had a handgun).

Back on earth we deciphered the scrolls, visited Venus (another villa) and massive rolling dark clouds. A giant predator's skull the size of a station wagon. 

The scrolls told us more of the story: there were "accountants" that the Medici family had been in contact with. There were several 'sacraments' that an adept would go through before being able to speak to these "celestial accountants." The first was flight, the second lightning, the third we interpreted as "stronger" or "maturity." After that came the ability to make a crown.

The other planets were the previous dead worlds. Everything had begun on them and then ceremony had happened and they were ended. Each as the story foretold (one in rain, one in flood, one in jaguars, one in earthquakes).

Apparently many groups had known about the blood-magic. The Russians had tried it unsuccessfully. The Medicis had perfected it, building the crowns and the carousel and being able to move between the planets. It seemed that the "accountants" were some kind of divine left-overs from the creation of the universe and the people, like us, who would be able to interact with them went through a progression of gaining abilities.

It seemed that performing the slaughter ritual would build even more power. Perhaps that was what had been done ... if you built too much, the world ended? We weren't certain. However:
  • Several of the other teachers were flying
  • Two of them had developed the ability to fire lighting bolts (8 AP in Standard, 8 AP in Exotic or Periodic from the Big List of Attacks)
I talked to the teacher who had left and realized he was flying too--so there were 13 of us--meaning one of the teachers at the school was not one of us--but something else. I concluded that one of the teachers was a plant from the schools' creator or some other force that would lead to the destruction of the world.

It turned out I was right. One of the teachers--the business teacher (whom I suspected, stopped suspecting, and then suspected again) felt he had been inspired by his dreams and would "elevate the world" to his vision. He was determined to wear the crown (he knew it existed--but didn't know where it was--I had it hidden in my closet) and marshal his power (he didn't fly--but he was very strong and very hard to hurt). He told me this because he felt I could help him.

I got the others.

The game ended in a show-down wherein we faced him down (he was a bit more evolved but didn't have the energy attack powers). We had 8 AP Force Fields--he had a 10 AP Force Field and a bunch of ADP.

When it was over, we took him to Mercury (which was the planet of Jaguars--which were, we learned in the after-gaming Q&A session, terrifying creatures that, if you saw them, would "get inside your head" and continue to hunt you through dreams and then into reality--they could follow us back from Mercury) and dumped him there. The fortress-like villa stood intact on a nightmarish Mercury-scape plane but we didn't think he'd last long even inside its walls.

The game ended when the GM had to return to work. I estimated it at about 18 hours of play time over three days.

The game seems much more stark on "paper" than it did in actual practice. It had a creepy organic feel to it with its nod towards real world conspiracy theories (the five-worlds thing is real--as are the ends of the four worlds). The images of Medici villas had a dream-like quality to them (they were taken from a Wikipedia website on Medici villas--no people were shown and the terrain around it seemed bare of any animal life--which contributed to the "dead worlds" effect).

My character, an investigative reporter turned teacher was perfectly suited for the game. K's character, a mad-scientist inventor type really wasn't. If we'd had more time up front we would've fixed that (as it was, I was planning to run something and was feeling too exhausted at the last moment to put it together). K took more actions than I've illustrated here but in terms of the over-arching plot the character wasn't as significant.

The characters were: 8 AP of attack, flight, 8 AP of Force Field, and eventually 8 AP of GAT (which we would've gotten if we'd played longer). The game was designed to continue running past that battle. There were a bunch of conflicts (the mob-land developer guys, the drill team that was planning to take over the school if they could get guns, etc.) that would've developed fully once we had grown into our full abilities.

Each of the dead worlds also had interesting things on it--Mars had a remaining civilization there. There were "dungeons" to explore out in the wastes. Each world had its own kind of monster (the worst being the "Jaguars") and its own ghosts with their own designs--all of them could get to Earth to follow us back.

I'm sure this write-up leaves a lot out and may not make any sense. I'll be happy to answer questions.

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