Actual Play – Bright Souls, Dark Alleys (7/16/2011)

GM: Ryan Macklin (though in a tired haze the night before I misspelled it Makclin on the Game Table Tent)
Players: Sean Nittner, Matthew Klein, Morgan Hua, Jon Edwards and Chris Hanrahan.
System: Unknown Armies


Bright Souls, Dark Alleys
Game System: Unknown Armies
Game Master: Ryan F Macklin FTI
Characters Provided: yes, mostly
Power Level: Street-ish
Variations: Streamed down and laser focused, baby
Number of Players: 4
“You know Rhianna? That gal that works over at the diner, busting her as for seven-five and crap tips? Yeah, her. So, last night she starts speaking in tongues and the diner bursts into flames. Plenty of bodies…but not hers. Now gents & lasses, we have ourselves a serious situation. A normal got herself immense power & blew up a building. That needs to be dealt with, so I hired you freelancers. You know the Weird, you’ve seen things that crack minds. Go fix this, or you might be next.”

Why it almost didn’t happen

This game almost didn’t happen for me. Every year at Good Omens Con something goes wonky. Last year it was the shuffler hate, this year it was drop outs. We had a lot of people that at the last minute couldn’t make it. Most of them were cool and told me about it, but a few just didn’t show. As Shepperd Book said, there is a special place in hell for some sins. Despite having a lot of excitement, and having to turn people away when I first opened up sign ups, the morning shift had games that barely went off. One in particular “shot in the chest lol #seriouslysomeonecalladocwagon” hand only 2 of the five players show up. One of them I heard later in the morning session was sick as of the last facebook update, the second is still unexplained, and a third had told me in advance that they couldn’t make the game. I asked Randy how many players he needed to make the game run and he said 3 would do. So…I was a hairs breadth from playing in that game instead. Luckily last minute Cil Taylor showed up and took a spot, ensuring that all the games could run as planned, or at least close to it.

Why it HAD to happen

Much as I like Ryan, I haven’t had the pleasure in playing in many of his games. Ironically it’s the story of the cobblers sons have no shoes. Whenever I see him at cons I refrain from taking a seat in his games under the assumption that we live near each other and so we could game together any time… only we haven’t. Life, distance, gaming groups, you name it, it gets in the way. Anywho, I was listning to this episode of Canon Puncture where Ryan got on and talked about why Unknown Armies was his favorite game ever. For being a pretty old-school, non-indie game I thought this meant a whole lot. It would be one thing if he said Apoc World or Burning Wheel or even Dresden, but to give that credit to a mainstream game meant a lot to me and I listened to the show intently. By the end of the episode I was doing two things. 1) Special ordering a copy of the game from EndGame and 2) telling Ryan he had to run it for me some time, even specifying that I wanted a street level game.

So, in many ways I felt like this game was a special gift to me and I didn’t want to miss it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Ryan wears a lot of hats. Ryan the entertainer, Ryan the game designer, Ryan the critic, Ryan the podcaster, and the most public Ryan Mother Fucking Macklin from the Internet (list not exclusive). One hat that I really like though is Ryan the GM. It’s a tempered and personal Ryan that is very good at shining the spotlight on others and reincorporating their awesome into a larger narrative. Apocalypse World calls the GM the Master of Ceremonies and I think Ryan is just that. He doesn’t just run a game, he MCs it.

The game is the thing

The story itself followed a pretty loose plot that Ryan populated with a kicker to get the action rolling, a few bangs to keep us on the right track and a few complications to allow for some dynamic options at the end. The information presented at the beginning of the game about the organization we worked for (The Toy Chest) turned out to be more complicated than we though and by the end I think all of our characters had some reasons to question our allegiances.

The player character interaction, which is always the big thrill for me in a game, wasn’t the primary focus of the game but it was nevertheless charged, which I like. I’m all about my character having some obstacle to overcome and looking to the other PCs to either complicate or help in that endeavor. In this case it was the very good chance I was going to die due to a few bad choices my character had made. My interactions with everyone but Jon (the occultist) were very satisfying, and that was only because we lacked a place to connect, although we did have one funny near mishap with some pharmaceuticals. In particular Matthew and I (the preacher and the thief) had some nice connection. His character being one to find salvation in the darkest of places and mine being one who very much hoped said salvation could exist.

The end was predictable in that we “won” but less so in the how we did it. Find out for yourself if Ryan runs it again.

What Rocked

  • Ryan’s presentation of what we knew about the universe was great. It felt very Heroes, first season.
  • Silas (my character) and Solomon (Matthew’s) had a great rapport that was a lot of fun to play out.
  • There were two plot arcs in the story which converged over a single point. Those were murky waters to navigate.
  • Ryan made a character specifically for Chris Hanrahan, knowing that he might need to disappear during the game.
  • Ryan’s approach to being disconnected from time was very well done. The past, present and future all merging together in a complex tapestry of NOW.
  • At one point, due to some overconfidence on my part, and some bad rolls, I was starting to feel a little de-protagonized. Not like my character lost significance in the story, just that he was hired because he was supposed to be capable but he was in fact pretty inept. Ryan pulled a move that I really appreciated and gave an NPC a respect for my character that he probably didn’t deserve but nevertheless allowed him to still seem competent.
  • On that same note, Chris offered the same olive branch of accepting that “shit happens” rather than making the somewhat obvious jump to “why are you such a dumbshit?”
  • I think hunches are something that Ryan made up. They were a very welcome addition to a percentile system game (which I’m generally not a fan of) as they added a little bit of the “decide what is important to you” element that I think most percentile games lack.

What could have improved

  • The character sheets started blank and we filled them out. Largely do to the lack of an editable PDF character sheet. THAT IS A TRAVESTY! Not exactly beautiful but better than nothing:
  • There were a couple times when the game threatened to go off the rails (like stealing pants from someone at a bar ala Terminator). It took some work to easy those impulses back into the fiction. Fiction friction.
  • I would have liked more face time with the characters. That is a personal preference of mine though, not something I think every gamer shares. We didn’t have competing needs so there wasn’t a reason to have a relationship beyond cooperation. I’d like to have had either a romance, a dependency, a rivalry, or at least some asynchronous relationships (I like you but you’re worried I’ll be trouble, or I dislike you but I need you, etc). Perhaps that wasn’t in the cards for that game or that group.
  • The characters all had three stimuli (rage, fear and noble) as well as obsession skill that a) is what I thought the characters were “about” and b) did some neat things with the mechanics. I was looking for more of those elements to show up in the story. This is tough one I know, it’s almost like niche protection, but instead of creating a situation for every niche, you need to create one for every facet of each character (which would have been 20 if Ryan had done each stimulus and the obsession for each character). Phew!
  • Though it probably would have made the game take longer, I think we needed more stress tests. There was just a TON on unnatural, violence and self encounters in that game (which is a good thing!)
  • One of the antagonists came off a little high and mighty. I got that he was the voice box for a plot thread but he felt overpowering. It turns out he was bluffing and hoping we would back down, but when the GM presents a character as acting invulnerable, you can’t really tell if that is the GM presenting the “Truth” (caps intentional) or just some schmuck’s line. I wanted to take that guy down a notch, but ended up knocking him right off the ladder by means of a metal-bumper-to-the-head sneak attack. In the narrative it seemed that diplomacy lead us to a stalemate and violence was necessary. I felt a little uneasy initiating that violence.

Though that is a long list on both sides, the improvements are nit picks compared to the strengths. I had a great time in the game.


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