Actual Play – The Inevitable Electric Boogaloo (8/23/2009)

GM: Eric Fattig
System: World of Darkness (mortals)

I call it inevitable because Fattig really wanted a better name for the chronicle. Sadly he used it as a placeholder name once or twice and it stuck. The power of naming is great and is hard to undo.

The session started with character creation, with the following parameters. We’re all mortals who travel regularly. We are currently on a continental train traveling west and have something or someone (besides ourselves) on the train that we care about.

Here is our cast:

Simone Bleach, a beautiful girl who’s always wanted a better life than she could afford. Now she is an amiable drug dealer. On the train is her young brother David Bleach, who she is taking west to enlist in the army, an idea she hates.

Justin Washington, a Vietnam war vet who performed admirably during the war but cracked under the pressure, now an old hobo who talks to himself. Washington (or Uncle Washington as Simone has started calling him) knows that his old Lieutenant is on the train, the same one that cost the lives of his platoon. Washington wants nothing more than to kill this man.

Saph, a run away. Saph is young, pretty and decidedly beneath the law. She’s been stealing tickets, food and cash to keep herself on the move. Over time however, she has taken a fondness for the elderly conductor. They rarely speak beyond “Tickets Please” but from his kindly smile it is clear that he shares some affection for her as well.

Vasily, an herbal doctor with an “all natural” cure for everything that ails you. Vasily constantly experiments and believes he’s found the new miracle supplement and carries the ingredients on board.

Zac Green, a country singer traveling west for a gig. Zac is accompanied by his band and has with him the just written sheet notes and lyrics to a song he is sure will be a hit.

Mulder, not the special agent. This kid is a freak, he’s been trapped inside for the last 10 years watching x-files, looking for government conspiracies and practicing Tae-Bo. Mulder is his real name, he had it legally changed. On the train is a non-believer who is attending the same convention as him to debunk his finding: A Alien Artifact! (also on the train)

A framework of the story.

We started with an exposition scene, giving each player a chance to establish their character and do introductions. A few characters were assumed to have previous relationships (like Vasily and Simone, both who study pharmaceuticals), but otherwise we had a typical “you all meet in a bar” scenario, though in this case it was the dining car. Bringing all six characters into the scene took some finagling, but it worked. We also met a few of the NPCs which I suspect will be important later in the game.

Dinner got interrupted by a horribly smoky grease fire in the kitchen, which forced a mass exodus of the dining car. Our choices were forward into a very busy coach car or back into a sparsely populated sleeper car. To a one we went forward, demonstrated some of our natural skills in acquiring seats and used our investigatory skills to search for the alien fetus they must have been burning in the kitchen, insane idea courtesy of Mulder.

After a while it became clear that a) nothing was happening in the coach car and b) our Storyteller wanted us in the sleeper car instead. We moved to the sleeper car, had some more antics and then had the piss scared out of us (three of four of the men this was literally true for) when terrorists boarded the sleeper car. They wore gas masks and body armor, armed with assault rifles.

None of us having a death wish we all complied with the terrorists, though Vasily insisted that he required his wheelchair, to which Simone was pretty sure they were going shoot him in both legs so he really did need it. Thankfully then seemed content to heard us all into the cargo car at the back of the train with a warning that if we followed their orders we would make it out alive. Cut!

What rocked

The story ended on a cliffhanger, a moment of suspense that has us all wondering what is going to happen next.

The character interaction was fun, if somewhat drawn out by a lack of external stimulus. I like some of the connections that developed and I appreciate that Fattig (the storyteller) gave us time to develop some of these connections.

Our actions had repercussions in the fiction. For instance, Simone conned some poor arthritic guy out of his seat saying it was for her elderly uncle. Later when he came back and found the very healthy looking Zac in the seat, he was annoyed. I can’t stress how much player agency in the game means to me. If our characters can’t change the story, we might as well be reading the storyteller’s short story he wrote. Understanding that in this game, the storyteller has a plot, he still gave us the latitude to color the story to our tastes.

Characters were created with a situation presented clearly to them. We’re all on a train, and we’ve all got someone or something on that train that we really care about. This means that the conflict Fattig presented us with (terrorists taking over the train) is something we HAVE to respond to. Very good call there.

Fattig showed us repercussions without pulling the “GM is god” move. Instead of making it impossible for us to oppose the terrorists he had some random NPC get in their faces and quickly had his head blown off. This is a powerful tool for establishing how dangerous our opponent was without de-protagonizing the player characters.

What could have improved

Some scenes had too little structure and had no mechanism to move the story forward, thus leaving the players feeling a little forced around. Specifically when we all went to the coach car, it became clear that Fattig wanted us in the sleeper car and so he had to contrive all these ridiculous reasons to get us there. My thought is that either a) it shouldn’t matter which car we were in when the terrorists arrived, they herded us all to the cargo car regardless or b) Fattig should have just framed the second scenes as “being smoked out of the dining car, your all in the sleeper car, which is mostly empty besides you and a few others that also were escorted out of the dining car.” This would have established that we weren’t being punished for being PCs, just everyone in the dining car moved to the sleeper car and would make a natural transition.

One of the NPC interactions felt forced. The character Lawrence showed up to help pay the bill for Vasily when his card didn’t go through. It was actually my idea for something like this to happen, I suggested that before he introduce NPCs in a conflict situation, he introduce them in a mundane one first, also if they were an NPC that we’re supposed to ally with, make sure they are introduced in a positive light. He was going for the “Hey, let me give you a hand” angle, which I think is a good one, but because the was helping the character with the highest resources, it felt forced. I would have recommended that either a) he help one of the poor characters or b) Fattig suggest some kind of out of the ordinary, suggestive of the paranormal, situation. For instance, as it happened first his credit card was declined, and then his bills were counterfeit. Instead of trying to rationalize how he could have gotten counterfeit bills, I think it would have been more powerful to say “And it’s weird because you know you pulled those bills out of the ATM before you got on the train, so they had to be legit, but now it’s clear they are missing the sown in strip.”

We lacked enough external stimuli. On of the things you always notice in stories is that the protagonists always have something else going on in their lives before being presented with the plot. It isn’t always something big, but it gives another dimension to the character and gives them something else to interact with besides the central plot. John McClane is my go to character for every situation. What is his issue when the movie Die Hard starts? He wants to get back together with his wife. It causes some conflicts in the beginning (as he gets in an argument with her over changing her last name) but what it really does is set up John to have a motivation and something else that is always niggling at him when he is fighting they, hey notice the coincidence, terrorists! I think Fattig got half way there be enforcing that we all had something on the train we cared about but needed to go the next step of threatening that thing in a way that has nothing to do with the terrorists.

In my case I invented it for Simon. She started the session arguing with her little brother about enlisting.

For Vasily, I think his weasel should have started looking sick, or escaped from its cage, or some of his samples look aren’t being kept cool enough and they will spoil if he doesn’t get them a cooler place, etc.

For Saph, there could be a PI on the train hired by her parents, or at least that is what she thinks he is. Or, the kindly conductor would be walking down the halls looking at the train looking fondly at the cars and mention off handedly that he is retiring and this is his last ride.

Zac could have gotten in an argument with his band members, or one of them might be sick, or maybe one of the is threatening to quit because he doesn’t see his family enough.

Mulder, frickin anything could have happened. He saw a UFO keeping pace with the train. Some middle aged conservative lady starts talking to him in Klingon, he spots his rival on the train (the one that is going to debunk him at the conference they are both going to) and his rival reveals that he knows about Mulder’s alien artifact, etc.

I bring these up as some sparks because I think they could still be implemented as the game goes on (or something to the same effect). I also recognize that John McClane is one guy, and we have six protagonists, which makes creating these personal issues much more difficult to fit in a session.

Overall I had a great time. My criticisms aren’t complaints by any means, they are suggestions for next session!

4 thoughts on “Actual Play – The Inevitable Electric Boogaloo (8/23/2009)”

  1. It was a bad, bad first session. If not for the fact that the player characters are so compelling and have such great interactions, I’d consider canning the whole thing and starting something else. I have no excuse for my performance. I really should have just started you guys in the sleeper car. That would have been much simpler and I wouldn’t have had to shove the sleeper car down your throats. We’ll see if future sessions are any better, but I have a bad feeling my problems run deep enough that they’re not just going to go away, and I don’t think anyone wants to play through session after session of painful GM-learning-experience.

    1. I disagree. And that isn’t to spare your feelings. As I noted, there were areas I think could have been improved. But I could have also noted that you had figured those out on your own already (based on your post).

      GMing is like one big road of messing up until eventually thing work. It’s totally the heroes journey. Yeah, you kick yourself for every mistake, but Han kicked himself for trusting Lando as well. You just keep trudging along.

      At this point I see no reason at all to stop playing. I think there are a few things you could change, others you can ignore and move on. The on piece of advice that I didn’t mention above is I think you should trust your gut. You felt like it was really contrived to have us all move to the sleeper car, and you were right.

      Robin Laws (having just seen him in a panel talk about exactly this) would encourage you to break from the game and say “Guy, the next scene is in the sleeper car and it feels really forced for me to convince your characters to go there. Anyone mind if I just start a scene with everyone there?”

      Me, I’m happy with you just describing the sleeper call we’re all in. For yourself, I think you should do whatever feels right to you.

    2. A GM doesn’t get better without experience. The big question is, “Did your players have fun?” If everyone had fun (and it certainly sounds like Sean did), great. Try to improve what you think you didn’t do well. If they didn’t, listen to what they have to say and try to improve what they’re saying needs improvement. In my experience, no GM’s plan survives contact with the players. They’ll miss your clues, make connections you never thought of, and kill the adventure hook before you can set things up. They won’t go into the room they need to be in. Sean said you were adapting pretty well. Modern or future age can be tricky, but it sounds from Sean’s description as if you’re off to a pretty good start.

    3. I think if you look at your post, my post, and sean’s post, you’ll see that we all noticed the same thing as being not super awesome. But we all had positive things to say!

      Noticing the same thing as not super awesome is not a bad thing. We all agreed that there was a scene that could have been improved, and you know it!

      Overall, as I said in my review, I had a lot of fun. I’m more concerned that I let my vice/virtue compel to inaction than I am that one of the scenes felt forced. =P

      For the record, it was awesome hearing players that normal charge headlong into a problem until it kills them saying, “There’s no WAY you could compel my character to fight now!”

      You did good!

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