Actual Play – Redemption Rail (11/14/2015)

Apocalypse WorldGM: Michael Garcia
Players: Mike Bogan, Bry Hitchcock, Karen Twelves, and Sean Nittner
System: Apocalypse World

What is it about a train that makes it such a strong symbol of salvation? An extension of some still ingrained Manifest Destiny? The sense of locomotion on such a grand scale? The grandeur thousands of miles of track; a bold conquest over nature? Connecting people from so far away?

I’m just speculating here, but I’ve seen trains multiple times in games: Scott White’s Iron Road, John Harper’s Ghost Lines his ongoing rail Apocalypse World game, and now Mike’s Redemption Rail. Transportation means getting out of this horrible place, with the hope that there is something better on the horizon? Regardless of the psychological or sociological reasons, I know my experience playing games centered around trains has always been one of strong purpose, there was something worthwhile to strive for!

History of Redemption Rail

Redemption Rail was formerly an isolated railway junction and during the Apocalypse a great train passed through. It was westward bound and escaping a disaster in the east. The train was almost a complete ecosystem (like Snowpiecer) with solar panels on top, and cars devoted to providing it’s own food and water. For an unknown reason, someone decoupled the tail end leaving most of who would become the decedents of the holding. These original residents are known as the Waysiders, and they struggled to survive in what is equivalent of the Nevada badlands. Over time, they formed a religion centering on two beliefs: there was place in the west called Pair-of-Dice filled with clean water and green plants, and that a great engine would come and carry the remaining cars to there.

Though, Redemption Rail is isolated, there were rare trade caravans that would drop by a few times a year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t immune to raider attacks, and one particularly nasty one struck about fifteen years ago that decimated the community. Among the dead was the spouse of the Gunlugger who also was one of the parents of the Hocus. This encouraged a man named Frost to take over Redemption Rail who ruled the Rail who became a despot eventually lead him to a confrontation the Waysider who were opposing him. This confrontation critically injured the Hocus and killed their twin sibling. In retaliation, the Gunlugger single-handedly murdered Frost and his entire gang (about 20 people). Some say it was justified, while others believe they should of spared the less enthused members of his gang. Following Frost’s downfall, there has been relative peace in the holding. Though there was no clear leader, the Hocus took over the Waysider, and through it, was able to keep any significant conflict arising for the next ten years.

Gradually, refugees began to trickle into Redemption Rail, escaping either devasting raider attacks, or a natural disaster. The raider attacks all came from a group known as the Immolators: brutal cannibals with seemingly supernatural powers that swept over holdings like locust picking everything clean before moving on. K the Ruin Runner, knows of them intimately, but rarely speaks about them. The natural disaster has come to be known as the Conflagration and is responsible for most of the refugees that have ended up in Redemption Rail. It is a fire that burns out east, and immolates regardless of the presence of fuel, poisoning the land, water, and sky with it’s smoke.

During this period, the Hocus started getting visions of the Savvyhead and the Conflagration. The visions showed that a great fire was coming to Redemption Rail, and the only means to escape it was for a new engine to be built by this Savvyhead. Though many of the Waysiders were faithful, they were still surprised when the Savvyhead showed up with their sibling, the Brainer. Unfortunately, the Savvyhead wasn’t the only refugee to show up, as the Conflagration started claiming the last remaining holdings out east, causing a horde of refugees to poor into Redemption Rail, many of which lead by the Chopper, Canker.

Facing starvation, it was the generosity of the Hocus and the Waysiders that saved the refugees, but now the holding is facing food and water shortages as the refugees doubled the number of people in the holding.This has caused increased tensions between the Hocus’s cult and Canker’s gang the Prarie-Jackals, vying for the limited resources in Redemption Rail. For now, peace has been maintained, but pressure is building for change to occur, good or ill.

The Cast of Redemption Rail

For this game, Michael created six pre-generated characters that already had history within the rail. He also tweaked the playbooks some to fit the setting. We had:

Canker the Chopper: You lost everything to the Conflagration except your daughter, who was burned badly, but survived.. You arrived at Redemption Rail with nothing, but have managed to transform a fair number of your fellow refugees into the very dangerous gang: the Prairie-Jackals.

Hector or Hope the Hocus: Fifteen years ago, a feud broke out in Redemption Rail between two factions which you and your sibling found yourself opposite sides of. Not wanting to kill your own twin, both of you tried to broker peace, but, in the end, you were gravely injured and your sibling was shot dead. In the aftermath, you took over the Wayside church and have nearly doubled the size of your congregation. Unfortunately, the refugees, the raiders, and the coming of the Conflagration threaten the stability you bled for.

Samson/Sister the Gunlugger: You remember the world before the Conflagration, though you were very young then. You spent your entire life in Redemption Rail raising your twins, Hector and Hope praying that they never know they pain you had to endure to survive. Then the feud broke out and you nearly lost both your children. With one in the ground and one at death’s door you snapped and went to murdering every single one of those sons of bitches. Fifteen years later you still have all their guns as mementos of slaughter you committed, but you swore you’d never use them again…unless you had to.

K the Ruin Runner: You are the only one who have seen the Immolators and lived, but the price you paid for your survival was very high. You had to watch everyone you ever loved, including your entire family be tortured and murdered. You yourself were no stranger to their cruelties, but one day, you managed to get the upper hand on one of your captors and you bashed his face in with a crowbar before escaping into the wasteland. Out there, you learned to survive with nothing but your wits, but the isolation was too much to bear so you found your way to Redemption Rail. Most see you as complete wackjob, but you can’t help it. It’s hard to talk to people after all you’ve been through. Luckily, someone has taken pity on you and given you place to stay, and more importantly, their friendship.

Ash the Savvyhead:Your father was a fucking monster, but he had to try and sacrifice your sibling for you to discover that. After you gunned him down, Phoenix and you escaped to Redemption Rail. There you found your abilities to fix old tech has made you invaluable. However, there is prophecy of a great engine and you role in creating and you’re not sure if this a party you want to play.

Phoenix the Brainer: Your father was a fucking monster and Ash saved you from him, or at least that’s what you both want to believe… You are incredibly gifted as well as cursed. In addition, you have insight on an enemy no one else understands.

Highlights of play

We selected K (Karen), Ash (Bry), Pheonix (Mike), and Canker (Sean). The other two characters became important NPCs in the story. I don’t want to go into to many details because there are some fronts and threats that Mike is a) still working on and b) planning to drop on players at Dead of Winter.

We saw an awesome transformation of K from a terrified creature to someone whose drive gave him courage. In our first scene when given the choice of saving his own skin or facing his fears to help another K just bolted! Boom, he was out of there. In our final confrontation though, K didn’t lead the “charge” (we were mostly running anyway) but he did show us where we needed to be, despite the risk to himself.

Ash and Phoenix were two sisters that had been messed up something fierce by their father. We never got the whole story behind Phoenix but it was pretty clear that her name wasn’t coincidental and that her sister had somehow given her a new life. It was great that Ashed loved her sister unconditionally, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a little scared of her too. Brainers, right?

This moment when Ash gives Canker’s daughter a present (a hood ornament from the SUV that we just took by force) and she turns to her daughter and asks “what do you do when someone gives you something?” and Delfinia immediately ferrets the shiny object away under many layers and inside a hidden pocket safe from robbers and thieves. “Good girl!”.

The mounting complications involved with turning on the “Food Switch” (my character’s very limited understanding of hydroponics and gardening combined with a real urgency for food meant she just kept driving towards whatever the Savvyhead said was needed to provide food).

Fucking running away through a minefield! K had a secret holdout on the other side of the minefield and woe be to those who try to chase him down. We found Bone in pieces afterwards.

Pheonix getting to the truth of the matter…one broken brain at a time.

What rocked

I usually play characters that care, that are at some level driven by compassion. They are easier to empathize with for me. Canker wasn’t that person. She cared about her daughter. She cared, in a general sense, about stability, but she gave exactly zero fucks for people that got in her way. We started the game with me “making an example” of Fuckboy and curb stomping he head against the rail itself. In fact, up till the end, most of the blood spilled was by Canker asserting herself over the savage fucking Prairie-Jackals. I think I realized I was breaking my norm when Bry said “I know now not to fuck with Sean when we play Apocalypse World”. Being badass in this game isn’t hard, but when I heard the siren call of “This is a Canker problem” I responded.

Mike B did a fantastic job of playing a Brainer who was fucked up, but not weird for the sake of being weird. Pheonix wanted to know the truth about her father, about the impending doom, and about the doomsday cult that hailed it. All the scary ass shit she did was in the service of finding out that truth, and then acting on the knowledge she had.

Lots of strong ties in this game. Between Ash and Phoenix, between Canker and Delfinia, between Ash and Lagato (sp?). Some great PC-NPC-PC triangles between Phoenix-Bone-Canker (Phoenix knew Bone was our enemy, Canker trusted her with her daughter) and K-Samson-Canker (Samson had taken K in and took care of him, Canker threatened to put a hole in the old man’s head if K didn’t return her daughter). You know, good, healthy relationships.

The props, both the map and the pictures were great. They breathed life into the characters…which we snuffed out one by one. Sorry Pampers, Bone, Gerber, Fuckboy, Diesel, et al.

Ash’s scene where she used and old timey radio to tune into the Psychic Maelstrom and find out what started this all was just amazing. The call backs were great.

Mike’s answer to what was needed to fix the train was great. Drove two PCs (Ash and Canker) right against each other!

What could have improved

The Conflagration, a force beyond mortal ken existed alongside the Psychic Maelstrom. I think it would have been stronger (and present less confusion when making moves like “open your brain”) if it was the Psychic Maelstrom. In this world, that’s what it is!

There were some NPC relationships between Hope and Grove and Hope and Sampson that made sense but they weren’t “charged”. No PC agency meant the players were bystanders to their development which dragged some energy out of the game. It seems like Hope is a pretty central character. She should be given out first, before the other characters are offered.

We had some discussion after the game about pitching this as horror. The horrific threats were distant and external. The immediate threats were personal (two people at odds) or based on scarcity (food, water, etc). There were great but didn’t evoke horror or fear. We needed more announcing future badness in the form of our loved ones being either converted or consumed by the unknowable threat.


Actual Play – The Space Between (12/15/2013)

Nemesis_rpgGM: Christopher Ory
Players: Sean Nittner, Nik Gervae, Skylar Woodies, and June Garcia
System: Nemesis ORE

Warning: Details of the game (spoilers) included below.

Description: You are the member of a T.R.U. (Tactical Response Unit); an elite, genetically modified, team that solves…. problems. T.R.U. teams are sent from one corner of the galactic empire to the other cleaning up other people’s shit; usually the hubris of some fat fuck diplomat or egghead that can’t see beyond their own damn dreams of wealth and dirty tranceclub blowjobs. But what the hell, you don’t feel pain and every time a limb gets blown up or ripped off by some monstrous bio-job, it just grows back. You just wish you weren’t given such stupid fucking callsigns.

Your unit is busy. Every time you put out one fire, another breaks out in the next far flung dirthole. It doesn’t take a historian to see that the empire is crumbling. Corruption is rampant. There are traitors everywhere. It is completely possible that despite all humanity has accomplished, a new dark age is coming and you can see it will envelope entire worlds instead of a single filthy continent.

This time a research station on some unnamed rock has gone silent. The intelligence you’ve been given about this mission is minimal. What you do have makes almost no sense. To make this detail even more fucked up is that you have been pulled from your regular unit and stuck in with a bunch of strangers. At the end of the universe, and the end of recorded history, it is not going to be a good day.

Our Game

A goal I had this year was to try new GMs that I hadn’t played with before. All three of my spots were with GMs that were new to me: Bryan Hitchcock, Mike Garcia, and Chris Ory. All great guys whose company I enjoy.

This was a game that I had very mixed feelings about, and most of these come from my expectations going into it. Some of my other issues were self-sabotaging due to being tired, punchy, surrounded by profanity, and my loathing of secrets.

I’ll break those down piece by piece.

Mood – Dickery

Gil was running his Bad Santa game right next to us. The game is specifically designed to be lewd and indulgent of adolescent humor. And it’s fantastic at it. It’s also loud and contagious. It didn’t destroy the mood, but it flavored it. As the night went on, as more beers were drunk, and as we got more tired, we slid down that slippery slope and were acting just as raunchy and vulgar oursleves.

Suggestion: Not much really. There were several environmental factors (fatigue of the last game of the con, drinking, and company) that individually might have been addressed, but collectively the formed a collage of gonzo irreverence that didn’t do service to the serious intent of the game.

Secrets – Pervasive

I can’t say how much secrets bother me in games. Players keeping secrets from each other is like actors keeping secrets from each other in a play, and none of them knowing which script the other one is reading off. It is ludicrous to me. Players keeping secrets means we’re all playing different games, an it isn’t until the secrets come out that we can start playing the same one.  It’s lonely fun, and worse, it’s selfish fun.

Jason Morningstar uses a term I think he picked up from the Swedes called “Radical Transparency”, which just means at all times the GM and the players are going to be completely honest with each other allowing the characters (PCs and NPCs) to lie, cheat, manipulate, and swindle each other as a collaborative rather than competitive effort. We’re telling a story together, keeping secrets makes that story suck.

This was the element that set me off from the beginning and continued to grate on me as we played. The characters were handed out and their history, origins, and affiliations were all a secret. We were also given four questions to answer which the GM saw but otherwise were a secret. I really enjoyed the answers to my questions so I asked if there as any problem sharing them, but Chris wanted us to keep them to ourselves.

I played cool with this, at least at first. I was confident that I’d play a character who would be so transparent, finding opportunities to reveal his secrets to the others would be easy. I hoped that once they saw me unveiling mine (both to the players and the characters) they would feel more comfortable revealing their secrets, at least to the other players, if not in character.

The came the secret meeting. Chris had individual meeting with everyone outside the game. I see some merit in this tactic used sparingly. You can empower a PC to come back to the table with some new information, and allow them to lead the story for a bit. In this case though, our characters were given more secret information, and performed secret actions.

This was hard for me because now secrets were not only distancing us as players, but they were also halting the game. Every time someone walked away from the table the game froze until they returned. During one of these downtimes I went and visited friends at other tables, got Karen some water, and listened on some other games. By the second round of private meetings though I had lost my patience, and more, my investment. I just told the players outright everything about my character, and that is when the damn broke. We all swapped stories and then I picked up the missing player’s character sheet and read his aloud to everyone.

And this is the point where I let my frustration get the better of me, because instead of confronting the Chris head on about this, I was sabotaging the game. I didn’t feel like anything were were doing actually mattered, so I stopped caring, and just started fucking around in the game. I don’t think players should have secrets from each other in the game, but if we do, I should have respected that and not broken the social contract by reading them.

Suggestion: Radical transparency. Tell your players that the world in the game is full of secrets and manipulation, but at the table, we’re going to trust each other. Which means trusting each other to separate character knowledge from player knowledge, and use the secrets your character doesn’t know to drive towards drama and conflict. Reinforce that throughout the game by encouraging and/or reminding the players to have their characters act on their imperfect knowledge in ways that would further the excitement and development of the story.

Don’t suffer anyone insisting on lonely selfish fun.

Setting Expectations

The game opened with a rich introduction to the setting. We got several hundred years and several generations of genetically engineered evolution and space exploration detailed before we picked our characters. Each of them had two to three page back stories explaining our history and motivation. There was also a questionnaire to fill out to answer some persona questions about the characters.

By the time we were done with all of that, I was interested in both the setting, my characters, and their prospective relationship with the other characters (part of the premise was that we were knew to each other). Though I had a hard time empathizing with my character (see below) I accepted the world we were playing in and wanted to explore it.

Chris had a really brilliant idea for a transition into something else, and I think if I was prepared for that transition, I would have embraced it, however when it became clear that we were playing a completely different game than the one I signed up for, I felt hoodwinked, and that I had wasted time and energy investing in my character and in the world they (originally) inhabited.

Suggestion: Preface the game in the description and at the start with “This is an origin story, showing how one existence is birthed by the end of another. Both the characters and the setting of this game will transition so embrace the idea that your playing through the end of one era, and the beginning of another.”


The far flung future evoked two things that I had a really hard time with.

1. A fascist military state that ruled unquestionably and metered out death sentences at a whim.

2. Completely self-absorbed and immoral class of humanity that mercilessly bullied and tormented all those weaker than them and had no sense of mortality or fear of consequence, but answered unwaveringly  to the previously mentioned government.

But of these were hard pills to swallow because not only was I having a hard time empathizing with any authority structure in the world, but I also thought my character was a raging dick. Having the the first element is great. You present a tyrannical authority and the players get to rail against it. That is good times. By making the players pawns of this authority, as well as raging assholes themselves, and I don’t know how to empathize with either my character or what they are doing in the story.

This wasn’t a buzz kill, because my character seemed to be  morally curious (aware of primitive naturally born humans and theorizing that they were close to god). He also had religious convictions with a pretty broad license for how I should interpret them. I chose to assume a stance of energetic hubris. He believed that mankind had reached a kind of perfection and that they had ascended the celestial ladder to angelic status (his saliva was holy water, his voice was the word of God, his vision and convictions irrefutable) but in doing so had lost some of God’s gift to men, the gift of imperfection and of forgiveness. This gave me a direction of a character arc, as he was fascinated by God’s Creation (referred to in the setting as “monkey-born”).

It did mean however, that once that character arc was no longer viable to pursue in the game (after death, instead of encountering rapture and judgement, his new body was greeted by “Friend Computer”), I had nothing I cared about. His relationships with the other PCs were superficial, the world as he knew it was gone, and as a player I didn’t have any interest in starting up a new game within the current game four to five hours in.

Suggestion: Make the characters more human by our standards. While it’s amusing to watch a freak show, it’s not amusing to be a freak. Also, focus on their relationships and give them ties into each other’s lives. Give them reasons to want the same things and fight over them, or to protect each other, or to have strong but adjacent views on the same subject. Give them some hooks so that when the world ends as they know it, their characters still have something to hold on to and to reach for. The 606 character (Skylar’s second character) had this built in. I’d work towards developing more of the characters with those motivations.

Thoughts on the game

Plenty of those above, but also worth noting the player composition was excellent. Nik, Skylar, June, and I played off each other very well. When otherwise I might have been frustrated, the camaraderie at the table was fantastic.

Say Yes! With only a few exceptions (specifically butting heads with central command), Chris was great about interpreting the world through the players eyes. He encouraged us and enabled us to detail and expand the world. He built off the player contributions and re-incorporated them back into the narrative.

I liked what Chris was going for, and I’ve been specifically elusive about the details in this write up because I don’t want to give spoilers if he runs the game again. The thought he put into the genesis of a new worlds was really impressive and I’d like to see it fly.

I feel really bad about my behavior in the game. There was a point that I checked out and stopped participating and started pranking, which is just rude. In retrospect I wish I had either voiced my thoughts and concerns as frustrating elements arose, try to stay engaged throughout, or at worse, excused myself from the game. I apologize to those I gamed with for not being more mature at the end of the game.

Actual Play – Those Who Favor Fire (12/15/2013)

monsterheartsGM: Michael Garcia
Players: Kris Miller, Skylar Woodies, Chris Ory, Jason Frankenfield, Sean Nittner, and Liz Brewer
System: Monsterhearts
Variations: F*ck the Singleton rule!

Warning: Details of the game (spoilers) included below.

Description: You are beautiful and terrible creatures, in the prime of your youth. Your passions are as limitless as your power. Mortals were nothing but playthings to you. Now the tables have turned. Mankind has chosen its fate and you must suffer through it. Will you succumb to the inevitable, or will you rage against it? What will you seek in the twilight hours? Will it be love, vengeance, forgiveness, or survival? In the end, does it really matter?

We were teenagers on a train to oblivion… and I really wanted to know who I went out with!

Thoughts on this game

My personal contribution, for good or ill

I enjoyed the game, but I think I enjoyed it too much, and did it at Kris Miller’s expense. My character was the Neighbor. No supernatural powers but always pushing her glasses up and blushing in front of all the boys. She was sweet and innocent except that she was manipulative and made out with everyone. That was great fun for me, and I think even for the guys who I pitted against each other to fight over me. So lots of good there, but…

I also dominated a lot of screen time and not only that, I horded a lot of the potential romantic interests. My neighbor was indecisive, and in doing so I think I cut off other potential PC interactions. I’m sorry about that Kris, I think that probably affected you more than anyone else in the game.

Strengths of the Game

We had a lot of ties between the PCs, so there was scene after scene of people trying to get something from one another. Very inwardly focused, which I really liked.

The caveat of having the game take place on sleeper train was a great one. Dirty deeds happen on sleeper trains 🙂

We really nailed the 80s time frame, which is a particular favorite of mine. One of he specific things that we lined to was music, specifically cassette tapes. Mix tapes, hard to find tapes, and bitchin’ tape decks. The witch used these as symbolic links, the wyrm used them as gifts and barter. The rest of us just used the as objects of adoration.

The players were strong and Mike did a great job making their actions (for good or ill) have consequences that permeated throughout the story.

I got to fly away from an a-bomb on the back of a dragon. Yep!

What could have been improved

Character creation was a two hour process. There was a lot of good in that, specifically detailing the back story, and creating relationships, but I think it could have been cut down by presenting fewer skins. Perhaps also fewer significant NPCs. We had 10 I think (one for each PC, plus three adults, and a bully). I think we could have done with just one between each PC (total of three), and two adults.

There was a “end of the world” story that I don’t think any of us really grabbed onto. Mostly because we didn’t really get it. The NPCs new about it and they were being really cagey about a choice we’d have at the end. There was time-travel or dimension hopping element that we never really understood. As a result I felt like there was a lot of the MC telling the players the world was going to end and the players wondering what happened to their lip gloss. Priorities!

There was also an NPC-NPC relationship, that I think Mike wanted to turn into an NPC-PC-NPC relationship, but none of us were really taking the bait. Overall, when there was so much concrete in front us (like can you believe those two made out in the observation car), it was hard to get interested in an apocalypse that we were pretty sure we couldn’t stop, and only the NPCs were clued into to the fact that it was going to happen. I think these NPCs should have been dug deeper into our characters during the backstory section, so that at least a few of us had some motivation to get information out of them.

Actual Play – Red Moon Rising (12/14/2013)

DLGM: Bryan Hitchcock
Players: June Garcia (Lola Montez), Basil Benitz (The Lonesome Rider), Marcus Flores (Wild Bill Hickok), Jill Stapleton (Wyatt Earp), Gil Trevizo (Doc Holliday), and Sean Nittner (Calamity Jane).
System: Deadlands
Setting: Deadwood and company.

Warning: Details of the game (spoilers) included below.

Description: It’s 1879. Deadwood is a wild treaty town. Any minute, the Sioux could wipe it out or the U.S. could invade to shut down illegal trade. Violence boils over in the muddy streets and saloons war for the gold of lecherous miners. It’s a boomtown all right. But there’s a Red Moon rising, and whether you’re an outlaw gentleman, a lonesome rider, or a shady lady, the Reaper is coming for you.

The setup

Bryan did a fantastic job setting the game up to offer up a cast of great characters. Each one was described as we had seen them in movies/shows and given a lead in to Deadwood. Character selection went quickly because all the offers were awesome. When I grabbed Calamity Jane, Bryan asked if I was familiar with Jane in the show. “You’re god damn right I am, cocksucker!” Yeah, it was a good fit.



We each introduce out character with a short montage showing them in their element. We saw the Lonesome Rider riding off into an empty field with a deserted town behind him. We saw Jane waking in the pest test, surrounded by the sick, and coughing herself until she found her bottle, and passing out again.

We also saw US and Native American armies riding out…and Death himself, on a pale horse, riding out with this posse. All on their way to Deadwood.

The Reaper is Coming

The game started as the sun was about to set in Deadwood and Bryan told us that a midnight (our time) it would be midnight in Deadwood and that is when the Reaper would arrive. I really like framing mechanisms like this. The GM tells you very up front what the parameters for the game are, and every can set their expectations correctly. For instance, nobody in this game tried to send off a letter, sleep till the morning*, or do anything else that couldn’t happen by midnight, because that’s when the game would end.

The play is the thing

Everyone had different stories, but we had all come to Deadwood aware of the Nameless One’s grave, and the legend of it. As we wandered into Deadwood (or in my case woke from our stupor) we saw that we weren’t the only ones with supernatural inclinations, the whole town had gone to hell.

Some of my favorite player interactions

Marcus played Wild Bill wonderfully and I really enjoyed the relationship we had. He had risen from the dead and Jane just didn’t know what to do about it. On the one hand she loved Bill and would do anything to have him back. On the other, she wasn’t really sure it was him. Marcus did a great job of winning her over. We had several tender moments.

  • When the Nameless One offered her immortality if she would ride with him as a revenant, it was Wild Bill wanting her to be saved that convinced her to turn him down.
  • Toward the end when Doc Holliday was dueling pistols with the Reaper, Bill and Jane went off to find E.B. Farnum and get Bill’s letter back from him. When the finally did (after smoking the Wendigo and sending E.B. packing) Bill took the letter, which was written to his wife, and tore it up. Once again, giving Jane that faint glimmer of hope.
  • As the two armies collided on Deadwood and Bill was fixing to settle in with a drink and a game of cards, it was realizing that Jane had doggedly followed him to his doom that convinced him to high tail it out town.

Basil was a great Lonesome Rider. He wanted to find his lover Rita, and short of that to kills the man that killed her. As it turned out all of those men were in the Gem Saloon and we had a fantastic time killing Al Swearengen, Dan Dority, and the rest of his crew. Basil held the perfect balance of being stoic and resolute, but still firm and clear with his intentions.

Gil and Jill made a fantastic duo of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Their dialog could have been out of Tombstone. It’s possible some of the lines were. In general, they riffed off each other wonderfully. Wyatt wanting peace, and Doc admiring him for his idealism, but painfully pragmatic himself.

In the end though when Death shot him Dead (it’s okay, he killed Death too), and and then he stood back up, that we had the best scene of the game. Wyatt told Doc they weren’t friends any more (on account of Doc now being an undead abomination) and it broke Doc’s heart. He told Wyatt that it didn’t matter, he would still be at the lawman’s side, and as he promised helped Wyatt make it out alive when the cannons started firing into the town.

Favorite Encounters

The game had a non-linear series of encounters that rivaled From Dusk till Dawn. At every turn there was another horrific, violent, deadly, and supernatural evil present, and we were just the plucky heroes to kill it!

The Hanging Judge – He was just hanging everyone that annoyed him, and when anyone questioned that, he’d hang them too. What was clever about this was that he used his social status to belay the inevitable gunslinging. It was a good opportunity for the players to figure out what there characters were all about and where they stood with the law. Once his true colors showed, he ate lead, just like everything else in our path.

The Nameless One – Here was the get out of jail free card many of us were looking for. I liked the offer quite a bit. Immortality of sorts, in exchange for servitude. I had fun seeing who took the offer, who was exempt because of their current undead status, and who turned it down.

Pest Tent Full of Zombies – This was great because I started my opening scene waking up drunk there. The Reverend Smith thought something was very wrong with one of the patients, he was starting to become violent. I cursed him, his mother, and his ungracious attitude, and then rolled my intimidate check. Jane intimidated a zombie into acting respectful, at least for time. Awesome! When we came back of course they had all died and risen and we had a whole zombie infestation. We shot many of then in the head, but others were cut up by bowie knives, or wrestled with in the mud.

Cy Tolliver and the Vampire Whores – This encounter, I’m not really sure why, was actually pretty scary. Maybe it was just the way he described the women on top of corpses in a profane depiction of sex turned into murder, or just that a building filled with screaming vampires intent on sucking us all dry was scary.  We had fun putting knives and lead in them.

The Gem Saloon – Unfortunately Al never got to do much. He was gunned down pretty fast, as was Dan Dority. I enjoyed plaing Jame afraid of Al (and his men) standing at the entrance of the saloon swearing at people, and only drawing down on Jimmy when I saw him go for the gun behind the bar.

The Reaper – Of course Death would come to town, and of course the man to stand up to him was Doc Holliday. The had a pistol duel and both of them smoked the other. Death, because, well, he’s Death. Doc, because of his deal with the Nameless One, which caused that great moment between him and Wyatt above.

E.B Farnum, Wendigo – When we set out to catch E.B. before he was leaving town, it was just Jane and Bill. When he and the others turned into giant Wendigo I was worried. But sure as spit we out-foxed, out-swore, and out-gunned those critters. Shooting one dead, trapping the other beneath a whole wagon of cargo, and finally just scaring the piss out of E.B.

In the end, everything went to hell, and some of it went with it!

Thoughts on this game

As a romp from one encounter to the next, I enjoyed the game a lot. Each fight had something interesting about it that either added an element of fear, uncertainty, or changing tactics to it. We also enjoyed the moments between and had some opportunities for the character’s relationships to develop.

Savage Worlds still leaves me underwhelmed as a system. Here’s the reasons:

  • In a fight the Pass/Fail mechanics produce iterative results (roll damage when you hit, improved how how well you rolled) on success, and null result on a fail.
  • Outside of a fight, it’s measured by degrees of success, but there is still a null result from failure.
    • In both cases I want the fail to progress the story forward and it doesn’t.
  • The damage mechanic doesn’t recognize that the most valuable commodity in action game is the ability to act. Since the first increment of damage anyone took was being staggered (which could cause you to lose an action), hero points were constantly spent to buy that effect off.
    • Nobody wants to wast an action “catching their breath” while their friend is fanning six bullets into a bad guy
  • I can never get a handle on competency in SW. Bryan said that he made our characters awesome, and it a fight they certainly were, but in other cases they seem to just barely get by because of fickle dice. That’s been my experience in the past as well. The fiction presents larger than life gunslingers but the game produces very high wiff-factor. Less so in this game because we were decked out, but still noticeable.

My critiques of the game system included, this was a fun romp through Deadwood. Cocksucker!

Actual Play – Tomb of Sum’dedguy (12/14/2013)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Matthew Grau, Mike Muldoon, Skylar Woodies, Dennis Jordan, Kristin Hayworth, and Shaun Hayworth
System: Torchbearer
Dungeon: Dread Crypt of Skogenby

Description: Adventurer is a dirty word. You’re a scoundrel, a villain, a wastrel, a vagabond, a criminal, a sword-for-hire, a cutthroat. Respectable people belong to guilds, the church or are born into nobility. Or barring all that, they’re salt of the earth and till the land for the rest of us.

Your problem is that you’re none of that. So there’s naught for you but to make your own way. There’s a certain freedom to it, but it’s a hard life.

A rumble in the earth opened a passage into the long buried Tomb of Sum’dedguy. Quick, pillage its treasures before another scoundrel beats you to it, or worse, the earth shifts again and closes off the entrance forever.

Torchbearer is a riff on the early model of fantasy roleplaying games. In it, you take on the role of a fortune-seeking adventurer. To earn that fortune, you must explore forlorn ruins, brave terrible monsters and retrieve forgotten treasures. However, this game is not about being a hero. It is not about fighting for what you believe. This game is about exploration and survival.

Dread Crypt of Skokenby

As I was writing this adventure, Thor mentioned on G+ that he was working on a similarly themed dungeon. I love Under the House of the Three Squires, so I fully expected to love any tomb raiding adventure he created.

At Burning Con he gave me a copy of the adventure, and that sealed the deal. I was definitely going to run it! In retrospect, I should have play-tested it though. I’ve gotten really comfortable with the House, and I wasn’t nearly confident or familiar with the material when I ran DCoS.

Torchbearer at Dead of Winter

Overall I was disappointed with the game I ran at Dead of Winter. There were three major reasons for this: buy in, preparedness, and style.

Buy in

Of the players at the table I had Shaun who was very enthusiastic about Torchbearer, Kristin and Dennis who were curious about it, Skylar who has transitioned completely from Pathfinder to Dungeon World and loves DW, and Matt and Mike who had signed up because they wanted to try out one of my games. All good reasons for playing, but as a group, I don’t think I did a good job setting the expectation for the game we were playing.

Torchbearer is a dungeon crawl, so it’s a game you have to start with that intention in mind. It’s also a game of making a lot out of not much. Your characters are always under-equipped and under-informed, and part of playing Torchbearer is embracing that and marching ahead determined to do the best with what you’ve got.

Once we started play I could tell I hadn’t conveyed that.  The characters really wanted more information before entering the dungeon as well as wanting to propose a simple solution to the problem (just roll that boulder back over the hole that had been uncovered and consider the child lost). I steamrolled over both of these ideas and said “that isn’t what this games does” but I immediately felt like I was forcing the players rather than working with them.

From then on there were several instances where the mode of play a player wanted wasn’t compatible with the mechanics of TB. For example, Matt wanted to use Taika’s singing nature to help bolster her companions in a fight, but stay out of the fight herself. Several times throughout the game I found myself telling Matt that he couldn’t use singing to help in particular circumstances, but Taika did have Fighter, Scout, etc. and other skill that would help. It didn’t fit with his vision of the character, and so until the end of the game Taika was often unable to providing helping dice. I felt through most of the game that if we were playing Fate, or even Pathfinder/D&D 3.X / 4E and Matt was playing an Elven Bard he would have been able to do the things he wanted to do.


I had read the adventure cover to cover at least half a dozen times. Nothing really prepares you for running a dungeon like actually running it. I’ve gotten really comfortable with Under the House because I’ve run it for six different groups over the course of 12 sessions. With the Dread Crypt I found myself constantly rushing to keep up with the action, and unwilling to stop to read a room’s full description before moving on.

Part of that was performance anxiety. I wanted to stay connected with the players and actively engage them, which meant I was only willing to glance at the adventure and skim the box text. This did not serve the game well as I frequently glossed over important details that would have provided a richer (more exploratory) game for the players.

I think I really needed to know the adventure better than I did. The simple solution for that would have been to play the adventure myself at Burning Con and run a play-test of it for others. I didn’t do either and I think the game really suffered for it. There is just no remembering the details of every alcove in a room like you get from running the game a few times and having the adventurers bang into said alcoves.

Where this really hurt was in the various chambers, which had plenty to observe and investigate, but since I didn’t present them with rich detail, the players had little reason to investigate.


While I love, love, love Under the House of the Three squires, I’m only luke warm on the Dread Crypt of Skogenby. This is for two reasons: nobody to talk to, and lots of lore/scholar/theologian investigations.

The House has several groups of critters that you can talk to, along with a host of NPCs that all have their own stories. I like having interactions with players and giving them lots of options for how to handle them.  Most of the threats in DCoS have to be fought or fled. Both are cool options, but I like there being others as well. And I think I made it doubly bad by using a twist to create another encounter that had to be fought. Bleh.

Of the non-fight challenges, I found a lot of them were about “knowing” rather than “doing”. They involved lots of Lore Master, Scholar, and Theologian tests. Those kind of “do I know it?” tests are hard for me to wrap my head. First off, asking a player to describe their action is always tricky. When do I go from players asking a question to calling for a roll. I want to see them do something before I have them make a test, but when you’re trying to understanding something it’s hard to describe what you do. Also, it’s hard for me to think of good twists when “do I know/understand it” tests are made. Most of the time they are out of left field, unlike when someone tries to do something physically or socially, and I can follow from the fiction to determine what could go wrong. Scholar checks are great in town, they leave me lackluster during the adventure.

The play is the thing

Adventure intro. Before starting the game I gave the players the adventure intro, and quickly hurried them along to the entrance of the crypt. They really wanted to talk to the families more to try and get more information. They also wanted to propose a simpler solution…just roll the bolder back over the hole in the earth. I pointed out that the girl Jora was still in there and the families wanted he brought home safely, or at least her remains returned.

Grumble, grumble, get to the entrance of the dungeon!

Adventure Phase

Turn 1 – Standing the the fading gloom, torches were lit and Gerald plus companions approached the stone pillars, capped by a giant yew, and cleared them off so the runes beneath could be read [Scout Ob 2. Fail. Result: Twist] As they work rain began to fall. It actually aided clearing the stones but sent a chill down their spines and was difficult to work in [A factor outside]

Turn 2 – Using Ulrik’s shield and Karolina’s bearskin cloak to provide cover from the rain, Varg took rubbings of the markings to examine later [Scholar Ob 2. Result: Success]. After acquiring the rubbing, the pushed forward…into the narrow tunnel.

Turn 3 – While crawling through the opening Taika took notice of the white lesions on roots of the yew and identified them [Lore Master Ob 2. Success] as the result of charnel magics permeating the crypt.

Turn 4 -Inside finding the four disturbed coffins, Karloina thought to poke them with her spear, but first Varg wanted to inspect the auras around them, determined if the dead were at rest or not. [Lore Master Ob 2. Fail. Result: Twist]. Using his Wizard Sight, Varg pierced the veil and discovered the ghostly spirits of Haathor-Vash’s slaves. As they flickered in an out of existence, they enchanted Varg, who followed them as they danced away…

And all were Hungry and Thirsty

Turn 5 – Varg did not try to resist the lights, but Karolina didn’t like it when he followed them into a room and seemed to continue following them after they disappeared into a pool of water. With some help she pulled Varg back and broke the spell, leaving the magician infuriated [Angry] that he wasn’t able to learn the secrets of this crypt.

Spell – As Karolina wrestled with Varg, the skeletons they investigated burst into life (or unlife) and lurched forward with weapons in hand to attack Beren and Ulrik. Summoning the might of the Lords of Life and Death. [Ritualist Ob 5. Success]. Two of them remembered their life, there dedication to Haathor-Vash, and fled to warn their master of the intruders.

Turn 6 – Undaunted by their cohorts fleeing, the two remaining tomb guardians mindfully attacked Ulrik and Beren. All but Taika joined in on the fight, aiming to destroy the two skeletons, beating them into dust. During the fight Ulrik was knocked around some, angering him [Angry], and Beren was impailed by the leader of the tomb guardians [Injured].

Turn 7 – Having defeated all immediate threats, the party opted to spike the doors that lead into the adjoining rooms. Gerald set about securing camp while others made plans. [Survivalist Ob 2. Fail. Condition: Afraid] While spiking one door he saw he saw the shape of a woman’s face pass through the door and so close to him he could almost feel her icy breath. As quick as she appeared, she vanished back behind the door. After that he was terrified. What good is spiking a door if evil spirits can pass through walls.

Camp Phase

During camp, first Ulrik and then Taika tended to Beren’s injury. Gerald drunk deep of his wine to shake off the fear he encountered and then made merry by planning a card game with his companions which soothed their angry hearts.

Taika studied the remains of the bones left behind and realized that the bones were warriors who gave their life alongside their master, willingly, and continued to server her in death.

Adventure Phase

Turn 1 – After a restful camp, there heard something try to open the eastern doors, and when the found the spiked, began slamming into them. The party split up. Ulrik and Karloina tried to hold the door fast, while Gerald, Taika, and the others worked as pulling the spikes from the other door in a hurry [Dungeoneer Ob 2. Success].

Turn 2 – Taika waned to investigate a route to flee while the others held the door fast, but instead determined that the rooms connected back up, forming a circle, and now the six tomb guardians were right in front of her! [Scout Ob 2. Fail. Twist: In the fight].

Turn 3 – As the doors burst open, the adventurers could choose to stand and fight, or try to flee by crawling through the narrow passage into the light.  The held their ground and destroyed the tomb guardians! [Kill conflict. No disposition lost!]

Turn 4 – Inside the Chamber of Vigils they noticed there was a fine ash permeating the room. It was centered in a wide pit in the floor, but their fighting had disturbed it. Clever, clever adventurers that they were, they looks for tracks made of ash, and sure enough using their keen eyes and “Tracks-wise”, they followed the skeleton’s tracks made of ash into the Alter of Ascension, and found then dead end at the wall in the corner. [Scout Ob 2. Success]

And all were Hungry and Thirsty

Spell – Realizing that the sarcophagus here had to be a decoy, Varg took some time to study it and the rubbings he had taken from the dolmens outside. He incanted his Wisdom of the Sages spell to decipher them, but instead of learning their meaning, uttering the words brought about the attention of Haathor-Vash. [Arcanist Ob 3. Fail. Result: Twist]

Turn 5 – Pouring through the wall like a living shadow, the specter of Haathor-Vash brought a chill to the room. They heard a muffled cry coming through the wall behind it, and at once Varg was locked in a battle of wills to fight off the spirit from possessing him. [Will vs. Nature test. Success].

Turn 6 – Realizing that the scream came from a child, the adventurers redoubled their efforts to get through the wall that was a dead end. With some careful examination, they discovered the secret latch on the wall (see thoughts below for how I mucked up this room) [Scout Ob 3. Success], but before opening it…

Instinct – Ulrik checked for traps, and found eight spears hidden in the rafters above, ready to plunge into them. [Scout Ob 3. Success].

Good Idea –  instead of trying to disarm the spears, the adventurers simply tied a rope to the latch and pulled it from a distance, setting them off from a safe distance. I was totally turned around on this room by this point and had described everything wrong. So when I realized this was the wrong trap, I just decided to go with it and keep moving forward.

Turn 7 – Entering the Vault of Bone Flowers, the adventurers saw four more skeletal warriors. When the didn’t wake at first, Gerald bravely snuck up to them and wrapped his rope around all of their spines to bind them together. He also liberated their battle axes! [Criminal Ob 4. Success!]

From here I stopped keeping track of the turns because the party became really divided in their direction. Some of the things that happened.

Haathor-Vash, possessing the body of Jora opened the oaken doors and cursed them. Ulrik tried to banish the spirit (Banish conflict) and lost but gained a minor compromise. The compromise was that the spirit left Jora, but now possessed Varg.

After that most of the party was ready to flee. The raced out of the crypt with the body of Jora in their hands and threw off all the arm rings they were carrying, but Gerald stayed behind to try and help his friend.  There was a brutal kill conflict in which Gerald went down, but having received a compromise, took the spirit into himself so that Varg could escape.

The wizard ran out of the crypt in the dark and got out just moments before, the others pushed the boulder back over the opening. Sealing the crpyt with Gerald inside.

Thoughts on this game

Mike said he was happy with the heroic sacrifice to save his companion, which I was glad to hear. Others said they enjoyed the game as well, though frankly it’s awkward not to say that after a GM has just run a game for you. Mostly, I felt disappointed with my delivery of the Torchbearer mood and mechanics as well a the adventure I was running. As noted above, I think practice would have helped that delivery greatly.

“Your doing it wrong.” I tried to reiterate to everyone several times that helping means getting in there and doing some of the work. In the case of using a wise, it’s reasonable to correct someone, but otherwise, you gotta help to help. On a fighter tests it means hitting something or blocking a blow, or maneuvering into position. With a scholar test it means discussing the meanings of something, looking in your own books, or doing some of the translation work. What helping doesn’t mean is telling someone “you’re doing it wrong.” One of my frustrations was hearing that line over and over when someone would offer a helping die. I pushed back on it several times saying “describe the action your taking that is actually helping” but even then the action was often followed up by a similar snipe of “showing you how it’s done.” At one point we even had one person helping saying “you’re doing it wrong” and another person helping saying “no, they are wrong” (but you know, not “you’re doing a good job” or anything encouraging). I need to work on setting the tone of the game, that it’s gritting and rough, and that all adventurers have to rely on is each other. Also I should be more proactive in framing how helping works and give some examples.

I forgot that if someone fails treatment, it results in “sucking it up” and losing a point in a stat, and instead had Ulrik lose his healers tools by falling on the ground and getting contaminated. I think in retrospect they should have just fallen in Beren!

I really started free-wheeling when the got to the Altar of Ascension. I had read up so much on the two chambers to the side, and was expecting them to investigate them further, but hadn’t read the Alter text well enough. Instead of stopping the game to read the box text there, I glimpsed at it and drew out a few details. Wrong details as the case was. But instead of fixing it, I just pushed past and twisted the room around. I’m disappointed that I didn’t stop to refer to the text.

How to do a flee conflict when there is no where to go? This was a problem. When the second set of Tomb Guardians appeared and the party thought to flee, they realized the space was a circle and they practically speaking had nowhere to go. After that they decided to fight. I was a little disappointed with that because had the space been a bit larger, or they been able to conceive of a way to run out (short of running outside, which they were convinced was impossible do the tight constraints.

Action cards were great. There is a certain diminishing returns with cards on the table, simply because they take up space and eventually clutter the table. For my money though Action cards are great for the suspense of flipping over a card to see what actions are taken. In declining order of usefulness I think there is Light, Conditions, Weapons, and then Armor.  That’s a theoretical list however, because I didn’t print out light cards (didn’t have time).

Actual Play – 33 (12/11/2011)

MC: Sean Nittner
Players: Karen Twelves, Ralph Wolterbeek, Michael Garcia, Kristin Hayworth, Shaun Hayworth, Basil Benitz
System: Apocalypse World
Hack: Apocalypse Galactica


This was it; this was the game I had wanted to run for almost six months. Karen Twelves gave me the idea. Hack the awesome desperation of Apocalypse World into the super tense setting of Battlestar Galactica set in the time period of the amazingly good episode “33”. I had run the Apocalypse Galactica hack once before at the EndGame Minicon but even though it was a con game, I still thought of that one as a playtest. It was a preparation for “33”. The first game ran very well, but I knew some serious changes needed to be made.

I was running for six players for six hours. The time wasn’t daunting but the number of players was. This meant that I REALLY needed to keep a tight focus on the players’ interactions with each other. A prevalence of NPCs would be the death of this game. Still, to keep the feel of BSG the threats had to be external and uncaring. Cylons are science fiction Yog-Sothoth and their threat needs to be the overwhelming pressure cooker that makes every little scrape the characters have with each other into a potentially catastrophic disaster. I knew the key to this was the love letters. Make the players fighter over what to do with ambiguous NPCs and they could interact with each other all day long while still keeping the biggest threats outside…in the black.

I also needed new playbooks. For the first game I make the most obvious playbooks: Pilot, Commander, CAG, and Engineer on the military side and President, Opportunist, and Visionary for the civilians. This game was set in the time period of the first episode (after the mini-series) call 33. In that episode a ship (the Olympic Carrier) went missing for 3 hours and when it returned, out of fear, paranoia and misinformation the fleet destroyed the ship to protect themselves. It had been contaminated by the “other” and everyone was terrified it would lead to their destruction. The premise of this game was asking the question “What happened on board the Olympic Carrier?” and to answer that, we needed playbooks that were appropriate to the ship. The Commander, President, CAG, and Pilot were all out. In their place I added the Doctor, Activist, Partisan, Marine, Captain, and Businessman. Phew, that was a lot of work to create.

I needed to capture the horror of the episode. This was a horror convention after all, the episode itself was terrifying, and I needed that terror in my game. I used several things to capture it.

The love letters were grim. They presented each playbook with a disaster on their hands that was only going to get worse.

I used an egg timer. This might have been the clinch that made the game. At the start of the game, before they were even making characters I set the egg timer to 33 minutes and then set it down. When the timer went off, even though character creation wasn’t done interrupted what everyone was talking about and had them all describe their actions when the cylons appeared. We weren’t ready for dice rolls at this point (not everyone had stats, Hx, etc) but that didn’t matter. The point was, what does the first jump look like (or rather the 275th) where everything is just starting to get out of control. Does the Businessman knife a customer who won’t pay? What does the marine say to the civilians who are demanding to speak to their families on other ships? Each player narrated a small scene in response to my question, then the fleet jumped and I set the timer again. Another 33 minutes.

For most of the game that timer was running and when it went off the Cylons appeared. Man, did that get under their skin fast.

I played the hard moves really hard. A woman trying to open an airlock? She must be a Cylon! Until her six year old daughter runs out after her, moments after the marine had killed her. A captain with a ship full of mutineers. A nuke that ended up in exactly the wrong hands.

Also, to get the game started I had pieced together snippets from the episode “33”. All the pieces that pertained to the Olympic Carrier. I showed everyone the clips which went just until the point where Apollo fires on the ship and then abruptly cut off before we saw the fate of the 1,345 souls on the Olympic Carrier. That’s when I told everyone “You’re all on that ship. Let’s see what happened.”

The Play is the Thing

The game started with some pretty intense situations. A woman wanted to sacrifice herself in hopes of saving the ship so she had climbed into the FTL drive. One wrong move there and she could be vaporized. Getting her out though meant spinning down the FTL…which took 20 minutes to spin back up…on a good day. Things just pretty much went downhill from there.

The PCs had some phenomenal interactions

Engineer – Captain. I think Karen was channeling Scotty this game. I swore she was going to say “She can’t hold up much longer, Captain, she’s going to blow” in a horrible Irish accent. But she didn’t, instead she told her “we’ve got a problem, I have fix, but you’re not going to like it, but we have to do it anyway. Awesome!” Later, when the Engineer revealed as a Cylon and met with the captain again, it had been established that what the Engineer says the ship needs, the ship needs, no matter how crazy the request is. What you REALLY don’t want on a ship is your chief engineer, that everyone trusts because gods-damn it they have to, working for the other side!

Visionary – Captain. Ralph really stepped up in this game. He started off trying to play ball. His people were hoarding supplies on the ship (food, toilet paper, etc) and he tried to convince them to stop. When he found his wayward sheep trying to kill herself, he brought her back into the fold. All of this complying with the captains orders. In truth, she started trusting in him because he was at least keeping a small group of people from total panic. When he met the mutineers on board, however, things changed. He discovered their motive and decided he agreed with them, to the point of taking the ship hostage. Which he did! The first made even mutinied and had to be killed by the captain to gain a semblance of control again. Ralph the visionary as the face of the antagonist was never something I expected, but he did it amazingly well.

Marine – Captain. Mike played his marine pretty hard core. He wasn’t good at crowd control, didn’t know how to talk to people, he just knew he had to keep a mutiny from breaking out. The captain on the other hand was respected but tough. She gave him license to do is work and set a good example herself. This militant stance of course led to them having a bloody shoot out in the passenger cabin and nearly everyone dying just as it should have been.

Damn, I’m noticing a trend here that many of the characters had a pretty strong relationship with the Captain. We also has a lot of illegal activity going on.

Activist – Businessman. These two were great because though they were both trying to subvert the system, the Activist was almost entirely operating from his conscience and trying to change the political climate. The Businessman was just taking advantage of the chaos as an opportunity to improve his own standing. Seeing the two clashing both over ideological beliefs and fighting over the same resources was awesome. Then when they turned out to both be Cylons, both working on the same side, everything suddenly took on a new meaning. It was awesome.


We started with the Crisis from the love letters, which was nearly enough to keep us busy all game (not all of them were even address) but then more spilled on (as they do) due to missed rolls, ugly choices, and natural repercussions of extreme actions. All in all, shit went to hell and I commend everyone who played for holding things together as well as they did.

Roll Credits

The end of the game, though I wasn’t pushing for this ended up remarkably similar to the end of the BSG episode. The Olympic Carrier arrived back at the fleet, followed by the Cylons (one of the Cylons that revealed called in an attack), with the lights out (the cost of a ugly choice from the Engineer) and a nuclear warhead ready to go off (thanks to the Activist). The fleet really had no other choice but to destroy them.

As the game ended the players all wanted to see the very end of the show, where Apollo, under orders from his father, destroys the Olympic Carrier, which the audience all believes (and our players knew) had over a thousand souls on it. The is some crazy high tension music playing as he finally says “Mark” and fires on the ship, causing the entire passenger liner to explode…and the egg timer went off! I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried. I had totally forgotten about the egg timer by that point, and when it went off, we were all startled. It was awesome.

Thoughts on the game

I was somewhat liberal with the egg timer. At times I decided that we had deliberated a long time over what was actually a very short scene so I bumped the time back up. Other times I forgot to set it immediately, so I ball parked how much time I thought we had left, or just set it to 33 minutes to give them some reprieve. I think having this kind of fiat really improved the tool. It still created tons of tension but allowed me to dial that up and down as appropriate.

I did have a blast interrupting the action with the description of the fleet starting to jump and Cylons appearing. At one point the ship was damaged as a result of a miss and rafters collapsed on the Visionary. That the antagonists were the ones to come save him really changed the tenor of the game. After they turned against each other, I think salvation was impossible. Yay!

I had a blueprint of the ship, or a map if you will. I didn’t want to get overly tactical, but I did find that having it, having a general sense of where things are was phenomenal.

Kristin told me a few times that it all felt so helpless. As the captain she kept trying to keep things from falling apart but eventually they stacked up and overwhelmed her. That statement could easily have sounded like a critique of the game, but she loved it. I don’t want to run all of my games as impossible scenarios, but as a horror game, that sense of all your efforts being drowned out by the an uncaring and antagonistic universe, was awesome.

As I expected my players were all amazing, they really brought their characters to life and fought for what they believed in, which was even more awesome because I got to see that change throughout the game. The visionary sided with the terrorists. Three of the other characters revealed as Cylons. The lone two keeping to their mission (the captain and marine) has to resort to killing their own people to keep the peace. Nobody walked out of that game unchanged, which for as a fan of character development, is a huge win.

Props for this game were pretty light. I spent most of my effort on just creating the playbooks and love letters. Props included. Tokens from the board game to mark experience (Raiders, Heavy Raiders, Raptors and Vipers), to indicate the Cylons arriving (Basestar), and to indicate possession nuke (nuke token). I wore Joe Harney’s admiral coat as I had last time and this time used a safety pin to keep the collar tight and in place. We had the playbooks for the characters, Cylons, and love letters (no need for the fleet or Battlestar playbook for this game). I cobbled together some of the show to play them the Olympic Carrier related bits of the episode 33. Finally, I pulled out my egg timer (that I originally used to summon Batman in My Life with Joker years ago) for the clock! Nothing particularly remarkable in here, but they complimented the game nicely.

A pic we took after the game. Look at that bitchin’ table tent Matt Steele made for me!

Actual Play – The Putrescent Seven 12/10/2011

GM: Duane “A Terrible Idea” “Not-Batman” O’Brien
Players: Shannon MacNamara, Tom Idleman, Filipe Morales, Patrick Idleman, Sean Nittner, Jill Stapleton, Luke Miller.
System: Shambles

I went into this game with a lot of varied expectations:

  • Duane has run this game several times and I had heard good things about it. Magnificent Seven + Seven Samurai meets Zombie hucksters. I had very high hopes! (I was not disappointed)
  • The Idleman family was present and accounted for. I love playing with those two guys. I was in “But the Night’s Eyes Never Closed” with them the year before and really enjoyed it, they are both great gamers.
  • I sat directly across the table from Shannon, which I had some concerns about. Shannon and I are both dominant personalities in games. We play leaders and we push hard for our character’s motivations. My experience when playing with another alpha is that if those motivations are different but both sympathetic and appealing to the other players, then we can create some awesome conflict.[1] If the motivations are similar, unsympathetic, or fueled by ego rather than purpose, it can lead to pointless jabs, bickering, and cock-blocking. The later happens when the fight is more about asserting dominance (being alpha) than it is about achieving specific goals. Sometimes games make this worse by not offering a setting rich enough to have divergent goals (i.e. we’re all in this for one reason only and there isn’t room for anyone to disagree), and I wasn’t sure how that would play out in game. More thoughts on this below.
  • I know Jill but I have never gamed with her before. I was happy I was sitting next to her as it meant it would be easier for our characters to interact. We ended up not riffing off each other that much, though she was still a delight to play beside.

Character Selection

Duane started off the game with a novel method of character selection that bled into backstory. He gave us each a little prompt like “a gunslinger faces off against three men in a dusty street” and then asked the question “who are you?” Based on the answers, Duane picked a character for the player to play. Some of the prompts were pretty obvious, Tom for instance responded “I’m the gunslinger, facing all three of them at once.” I played a gambler, a Doc Holiday figure, specifically a British bounty hunter… and that started everything for me.

I asked to be excused for a moment, told them I needed to get something from my room and then raced out of there. When I came back I was dressed in my Dicken’s costume including the ridiculously frilly cravat, long vest, frock coat, top hat and cane (thanks to Ryan Macklin). “Hallo gents, top of the morning too you!” From then on I was a British Gentleman, card shark, gunman, and oh yes, Zombie!

Story – Character Interactions

Duane said he wasn’t running the game again, but I’m not sure. He took enough notes that he might give it one more spin, so just in case I’m not going to go over the plot of the story, it’s best when it unfolds in play. Instead, here are some specific interactions PC to PC and PC to GM.

Tom and I had this great and elastic relationship. He was a better gunman, but just barely. Though we never came to drawing on each other, there were several competitions between us to show each other up. Philosophically though we had a lot to discuss. It started with his character filled with disdain, marking me as a dandy and vagrant. In turn I was trying to gain his respect. Later, in the game, when my character however, was at his weakest, it was Jarred (Tom’s character) that bolstered me, gave me courage. In the end though, he broke and showed that his lofty principles were no better than mine. He wasn’t a noble soul, he was just proud. And both of us, our vices revealed grew closer together, and stronger for it.

Patrick spent much of the game playing the dupe to my cons. He was great because he kept willingly falling for my tricks, allowing his character to be indebted to mine and then acting on my behalf to pay that debt. I think there was a some fundamental player trust here that I really appreciated. Patrick knew (or at least I think he knew) that I wasn’t going to use my character’s status to wreck his experience playing. When I had him in my debt, the things I was always doing was putting him in the spotlight, to do a task or take a risk that frankly needed to be done in the game, and gave him the glory for it. It allowed both of our characters to be totally true to their personalities and never suffer (in fact often gain) because of it. There is a reason I like playing with the Idlemans.


Jill had a secret. We all had secrets, but Jill had a capital “S” secret. It did get revealed in game, by Luke in fact, and the reveal was AWESOME. It changed the tenor of the game, created a new axis for our characters to play off and generally rocked the house. It got me thinking an awful lot about secrets in game. In general my stance is that open secrets (i.e. those know by players but not characters) are awesome. Because the players know them, they can push on them; tease them, and generally making the reveal incredibly potent.

I’m thinking in particular of the Burning Wheel game Kristin and I are in where we all know she is my half-sister, but my character isn’t aware of it. The player knowledge of that means that every scene between them is charged with this awesome tension. Every time our characters interact, there is a subtext of “because I’m your big sister is why!” So, take my indie-hippie gamer player secret hating self and put me in a game where we all have secrets that aren’t necessarily going to be revealed. Results: I’m torn. The reveal was amazing. It wouldn’t have been nearly as strong if the players had known, there would have never been the “ahhh” moment we had. That said, what if it hadn’t come out? What if Luke revealed it before Jill was ready?

Also, my secret, I wanted the players to know. We had six hours and I didn’t want to hint at it forever, I wanted it out in the open so people could just push on it rather than dancing around it and leaving them guessing. So early on I just revealed it to the players. I told them my problem and asked them to play off it as they would, but it felt wrong, like I was breaking the social contract. So, hrmm, the jury is still out on secrets.

Shannon and I ended up being powerful forces pushing on different planes, by which I mean that we both had motivations but they rarely intersected. His character’s regard focused strongly on the safety of a small village, where I was focusing on my own dark fate. Because of that, he ended up running the show (his motivations pushing the plot) and I got pretty introspective. I can’t remember if we had any confrontations, but if there were any they were small. All in all, I think this was a good, or at least acceptable, way for two alphas to interact.

Thoughts on the game.

I like that Duane keeps the dice mechanics flexible. I’ve played Shambles before but it was a really long time ago so I don’t know what the “core” mechanics are, but Duane said he adapted them for a horror genre. While I don’t think they enforced the horror setting (no stat or currency to represent powerlessness, isolation, uncertainty or transgression), the system as we played it worked just fine and the threats presented in the game presented a very grim “wow, this is dark” backdrop for our adventure.

Mid-game Duane added a little tweak to the currency mechanics, which I liked as it made us feel a little more competent (It’s hard to be the deadliest gunman this side of El Paso if you’re missing shots left right and center).

I made one move that I regret and I’m ashamed of. At one point Duane said nobody’s ever eaten Zombie brains before… so of course I did just that! That isn’t what I regret. Duane and I agreed that I could get some knowledge the zombie possessed and that it would come at a great price. I agreed and presented him some options. The one we settled on was my character being in some kind of service to the villain. That isn’t what I regret either. Duane then gave me some pretty gnarly visions (scorpions and crap spilling out of my mouth, seeing things through a peep hole in death’s door, etc) and sent me back to the group with information about our foe. That I don’t regret either, in fact it was kinda crazy awesome. I then proceed to be vague about what I learned and not giving the other Boneslingers (the name for our kind) specific details.

Two things were going on here. One was me wanting the players to go along and not worry so much about the details (we had already had a planning session that nearly made me lose my mind). The other, and this is the regrettable part was a bit of wanting to be the special guy with the shining sword of plot. God… I can’t believe I’m admitting this. Ug, I disgust myself. I find it such a childish and insecure move to withhold information so that other people need you, but I know that a little part of me was saying “I paid dearly for this, I want it to have some value and not just be tossed into the pool of collective knowledge.” Well, it’s out, and it’s a good reminder for me how not to play in the future. My salvation was that I pretty quickly ceded this point and gave the info to Shannon’s character who then distributed it to the others.

We had a planning session was nearly done right. The done right planning sessions, as I think of them are the ones made Wilderness of Mirrors style or Leverage style. They are composed of each player creating a fact that is a problem “They have sharks with lasers” and then describing a montage of how they address the problem “we helicopter in seal meat to distract them.” These kind of planning sessions make the characters seem hyper competent (good thing), don’t require reading the GMs mind (good thing) and make for an easy way to give the players a bonus during the actual encounter (also good thing). The way most planning sessions go, the players spend forever (bad thing) trying to mitigate all risk (bad thing), while trying to read the GMs mind (bad thing, it isn’t possible) and often end up bickering over what will work and what won’t with the other PCs, which takes more time (bad thing) and is still based on trying to read the GMs mind (another bad thing).

Duane in this case gave us the problems “sharks with lasers” and a suggestion for the fix “there are seals over there” and then let us fill in the connecting bits through a montage scene. Not a bad way to do it, but because he didn’t specifically says “just tell me how you prepare and then you can use that as a bonus die” (or something to that effect) we still spent a long time planning… This was especially anti-climactic as the big bad fight didn’t end up happening (or at least it didn’t where thought it would) so all our plans were for naught.

This wouldn’t have killed me except shortly after, when the situation unfolded differently than we expected (go figure, we still can’t read minds), we started making yet another plan. I asked Duane, “Hey, can we just say we make a cool plan and then cut right to it being executed and use at the front door?” Duane mostly agreed, giving us a couple challenges to face and then placed us where we needed to be to advance the story. Well done sir.

In the end, as part of the epilogue I got to be the next bad guy. Giving everyone at the table another adventure to undertake. Yay!

A final note that I can’t really explain without giving plot away, so I’ll be annoyingly vague: A derringer up the sleeve with a spring loaded grip that doesn’t come out till the last few moments of the game is made of 100% awesome.

[1] Kristin Hayworth is a great example of this. In most games we play our characters soon come to ideological differences that neither of us will back down on. We fight, and we fight hard, but we do so because of our beliefs and the product is an awesome story, tons of fallout and most importantly character growth. My experience with more petty contests is that rarely anything satisfying (regarding the character’s relationships or the character’s growth) comes out of it.

Actual Play – How We Came to Die Here (12/10/2011)

GM: Noam Rosen
Players: Sean Nittner, Kristin Hayworth, Duane O’Brien, Eric Zimmerman, Lalita Devi, Karen Twelves
System: Dread (setting material from How We Came to Live Here)

I was so excited to play this game, and I wasn’t at all let down. Components of the awesomeness:

  • Players: Every single one of these players are awesome. I’ve gamed with all of them before and loved it. This was no exception.
  • GM: I’ve heard lots of good things about Noam’s games. I’ve played with him in my games, sat beside him as a co-player.
  • System: Dread. I love Dread; it makes me all kinds of happy. The tension that builds as the tower get’s more and more filled with holes.
  • Setting: I wasn’t at all familiar with the setting, but was immediately enchanted by it. The Native American Mythos.

Character creation started with picking from lists of members of secret cults (which all of us were in) and descriptive names (like “Laughs with Spirits, Dances with Fire, Who Ties Them Together, Fights them All”).

After picking characters we read up on our secret societies and then created a relationship map that bound us to each other. This processes started the game’s interactions. My character Dances with Fire, for instance wanted to have a child with Fights them All.

As the game started with a pronouncement from our inner chief Always Pregnant that the crops were fallow because there wasn’t enough children in the tribe. We were to marry and make children. We played a game of hacky sack (forget what it was called in the game) for the women to show off to the men and then went about partnering off. Dances with fire had eyes only for Fights them All and I was pretty bold about it. Dances with fire told him point blank to put a child in her or she would humiliate him… which she proceeded to do, loudly, in front of everyone.

I turned to Duane, who I really apologize for doing this given how hung over he was and pulled a block, “You going to let Dances with Fire shame you into giving her a child?” Duane stood up to pull to resist but somehow his leg go caught on the tablecloth and the whole tower went down. So sad for the player, but a great way to start the game.

He Fights them All said he take her out on the prairie (read: they would have sex) if she caught him. So they ran together, but as Dances with Fire pulled ahead she suddenly realized Fights them all was missing, he had been lost and it would be dark soon.
Noam took that one act and used it as seeds for the challenges. We all went out to search for the missing member of our tribe, and in doing so faced the ogre Sharp Tooth, summoned Father Sun to give us direction, and lost most of the tribe. Good times.

In the middle of this, there was another plot thread, a Cord Maiden who wanted to marry Kristin’s character (sorry I can’t remember his name) and went to Karen’s character who was both a midwife (semi-open secret) and a witch (totally secret). Horrible things ensued as Karen agreed to help her and did so by trying to cast a love spell on Kristin’s wizard, who woke in the night with a sweat. We all know just how well love spells work!

Karen later said she didn’t click into her character until she had failed the magical battle casting her “love spell”. During the spell, she really didn’t want to lose, but when she finally forfeited, despite her original disappointment due to losing that element of control over her character, it gave her character a really powerful motivation.

Noam picked up that motivation, used it to bring another threat (the Night-Eyed people) into the game.

As we traveled to a village to confront them, we saw a giant monster in the sky crawling up to devour the moon. My character threw a rock at the monster but only angered it into coming down to devour me first. In the darkness, the witch and the wizard however, merged their powers to bolster the moon and drive back the monster. Their sex-magic was epic.

Thoughts on the game.

I really did the proto-history setting. It has a sense of timelessness, and metaphoric reality that allowed us to range from the mundane to the cosmic.

Noam is fantastic and reincorporating our ideas into external threats so that we felt like all the challenges presented were results of our failures. He had a list of five or six threats and then brought them into the game in response to our actions. Very well done.
Often I worry (or third, or fourth) character in a game robs me of the connections established by the first, but this game assumed all of us knew each other well, so when a new character arrived, there was never a feeling of them being an “outsider”. Very important when you’re playing Dread in a 6 hour time slot.

That Noam had hacked the setting to the Dread system didn’t seem to be a problem at all. Our character sheets had all kinds of pools and traits but mostly those just gave us direction for role-playing. Generally speaking, if we were trying to do the think our character was all about, we got to do it for one less pull than anyone else, but that was about the extent of our “stats”

The kivas (secret societies) were cool, in that we didn’t really know how far they went, or what we would gain when we advanced within them. We had several characters get to 3rd rank in their kivas and that certainly made them interesting. I imagine in a long term game the GM(s) would want to slow down advancement a bit but in this game, we were having a blast trying to talk to spirits, killing monsters, etc.

With six characters we ended up playing all 11 PCs (that tower fell over several times) and we had the foreboding sense even at the end that our small victory paled in comparison to the larger threats. The tenor of the game was not scary but the themes presented felt like they were right out of the Mythos (Cthulhu, et al). There was an inescapable premonition of doom the entire game, and much, much more so by the end.

The “secret” part of the secret societies seemed a little ridiculous. I mean, our characters were running around doing things that made their affiliation obvious. Heck “Laughs with Spirits” was our spirit talker, which is pretty darn clear. I get that the idea was to mitigate sin, much like modern society would mitigate STDs and unwanted pregnancies with birth control, so it was always an imperfect solution, but I think there should have been some clearly “known” societies, rather than all of us pretending that we didn’t live in any. My guess is this is a setting element I don’t (or the game doesn’t, or both) fully understand.

Playing my second character (Who Ties them Together) was SO much fun. I was the total matchmaker and tried to get everyone to hook up. I dug it!

Best line in any game ever. “The sex was so good, there is still moonlight trickling down your leg.” – Noam Rosen
Other fun quotes:

  • “I lost my man so Father Sun put a child in my womb” -How to be outcast by your village.
  • “Sex was so good I saw my ancestors” – Laughs with Sprits
  • I threw a rock at the creature that ate the moon. It climbed down and ate me. The tower fell!

Actual Play – Blank Moments (12/12/2010)

GM: Matthew Grau
Not Appearing in the Sequel: Shannon MacNamara, Lisa Markus, Kris Miller, Sean Nittner, Jack Young, and Wayne Coburn
System: Chthonian Stars (Traveller)

My last Dead of Winter game. I was dog tired but still excited. Once again Matthew sells his games with a gusto. I mean, the man loves the games and it shows in his description of them.

This was a space faring horror story that reminded me a lot of Alien and Lost in Space put together. Bugs on the ship, destination unknown!

What rocked

Again, Matthew does a fantastic job of showing the richness of game and setting. Like Cthuhlutech there are plenty of areas I would love to explore within the game.

Matthew’s NPCs were played very well. He really brought them alive, even the ones that were caricatures (the hard ass sergeant for instance), he breathed some humanity into, and gave us a reason to want to believe in these people. Very nice.

Shannon Mac played this nerdy researching who was constantly radioing in from the research lab with great antics. Such as just after Jack’s character got bitten by this thing with a narcotic poison “Ummm…. Hi folks… it looks like the adults deliver a venom with their bites that can cause extremely vivid and dangerous hallucinations… so… no getting bit, m’kay. Thanks all and have a nice day…” He was constantly delivering them and just doing a great job.

Lisa Markus was playing the Bad Ass Bettie character, you know Buffy, Faith, etc. The super hot cans of kick ass… and boy did she kick ass. Almost in spite of the system I would say. None of the stats in the game were significant to make up for really terrible luck (which many of us seemed to have) but Lisa’s rolls kept coming up so awesome that all of her crazy gun-fu, wild acrobatic zero-g carnage of lead and fire was epic. She was the kind of bad ass could have lost a leg, had it replaced with a machine gun and still been hot!

The highlight of the game though, maybe the highlight of the con, was Jack Young playing Vasquez. I was really trying to figure out what to do with my character. He was an investigator with no skills he appreciably excelled at (see below), so I tried to dig a little deeper (not far mind you, this wasn’t emotional turmoil from his childhood of being raised by a single father who was drunk all the time) and found in the character my dirty old man. The guy who has pin ups in the pilot cabin, whose first comment on every woman is whether or not he would sleep with her (which was pretty much a 100% of the time) and generally hit on everything that moves. Then Jack started playing up Vasquez as this total tough chick that wasn’t going to take crap from anyone and was always trying to show that she was the best, and I just fell in love. I knew that she’d give me a backhanded insult (or maybe just a backhand) every time I made some lewd comment, and that she would always be their ready to challenge me on anything I said. It was the perfect kind of tense relationship that I can play off all night… Then something magic happened. Vasquez got messed up and suddenly instead of her protecting me; it was the other way around. Now my character was in the position of power and had to decide how to use it. Just when he thought he would have the chance to get in a free grope (or worse) he realized he actually had feelings for this woman that he didn’t want to jeopardize. In fact, through the middle of the game, some of his dysfunctional nature from working on Mercury for years and having toxins build up in his system, plus this identity crisis caused him to go into a tailspin, became reclusive, introspective and wondering what the fuck he was doing with his life. Thankfully, enough shit he the fan, I was able to justify him “snapping out of it” and Vasquez was right there to play ball… Literally in fact, we ended the game with the two of them playing b-ball in the gravity well. It was awesome.

Oh… and this was so awesome it deserved its own separate paragraph. When Vasquez was hallucinating hard core and I had to convince her to “protect me form the critters in the walls” so that I could get behind her and tranq her, Jack turns to me reaches for my throat and says “Did you just… stick… me…” And then the dude falls out of his chair as his character passes out. That sir, was awesome!

What could have improved

The game had six players with only three character types (investigator, researcher, and enforcer). What that led to was some early on scrambling to find a niche. Each of the researchers gravitated to their study early on, and Wayne in addition had the advantage of being quite home in zero-g, which we dealt with a bunch early on. The enforcers seemed to have an identical niche, but as the party was split up a lot, facing different foes, being able to blow stuff up had a pretty high demand. My character though, I couldn’t really figure out what to do. His skills and advantages were for the most part overshadowed by MacNamara’s character. His best skill hands down was Occult, and he had Occult sensitivity as well, but MacNamara’s character was better at both of those and as the researcher was the natural fit to do the actual, you know, research. I wasn’t a people person, wasn’t able to repair the ship, and wasn’t particularly good at getting stabby. In some ways he felt like a jack of all trades (I think he actually had a skill called Jack of all trades) but the die mechanic was binary (pass or fail) so representing being able to do “a little of this and a little of that” didn’t come across for me. Basically I looked at the character sheet and didn’t know what I should do. I declared early on that I was the “pilot” which meant for some fun cockpit scenes, but the ship was on auto-pilot. It was traveling a hyperspace speeds, there wasn’t going to be any dodging asteroids or getting into dogfights with imperial jet fighters…. I was “piloting” a boat. God, I can’t resist “I’m on a boat…” I am not sure if this is a traveler issue (not enough obvious rolls) or that the character types were doubled up, or just me overlooking something, but it meant for a little floundering on my part and some “racing to be their first so I have something to do” effect early on.

There was a lot of story in this game. Realistically I think we got barely more than half way through it. Matthew told us the rest and given the fights he had planed (fights always take a long time) and the tense chase scenes, etc. I think it could have easily gone another four hour to play out. That much story you have to get through is hard on me as a player, who really wants to chew on every morsel that comes my way. I want to reflect on the fights, the relationships, the outcomes, and the bizarre events that precipitated it all. After the action, I want the character to have a chance to discuss what it meant and show how it has changed them, even if in minor ways. That is very hard to pull when you’ve got a long plot agenda. The major fight of the game with the bugs turned out to be something of a “random encounter” in the scope of the adventure. We loved those bugs though, I really wish they turned into the story and the mission ended up being a red herring, rather than the other way around.

As a direct reaction to my last comment, I think I was dragging Matthew’s game down. He had a ton of action planned and I throttled back the pacing with my scenes with Vasquez, and our inter-party antics. That is what makes the game fun for me, but I think it might have frustrated Matthew because in the end there was so much we didn’t get to. I just am not wired to gun for plot, especially in horror; I want to really show how my character is affected by what’s happening in the game. So, finding my fun may have been to the detriment of others, and if so, I apologize for that.

Actual Play – But the Night’s Eyes Never Closed (12/11/2010)

GM: Travis Smalley
Prey: Mark Strecker, Patrick Idleman, Tom Idleman, Sean Nittner, Matt DeHayes, Travis Lindquist
System: Legend of the Five Rings

Saturday night at Dead of Winter and I was ready for some horror action. L5R is basically a setting where horror can be added in heaping spoonfuls at the GMs discretion. Add maho (blood magic), kansen (evil spirits), bloodspeakers (name pretty much says it all), and any host of other bad guys in the setting and you have opposition that is alien, unfathomable, and very powerful… sound like an Cthulhu games you have played. It is really clear to me that when Wick wrote this game ages ago, he was very affected by the Lovecraft Mythos and I think that influence has only grown through the editions.

While I don’t admire L5Rs resolution system for dealing with such creatures of inhuman nature (usually if you win initiative and make your fear check it is dead… unless there are more than one of them or they are too tough and then you are dead… which is not much different from fighting anything else, except it requires a fear check… that I have never seen anyone fail), I love their presence in the setting, and the weird ways they affect the culture (we burn our dead so they don’t come back as zombies, we don’t touch each other because shadowlands taint is communicable by touch, nobody of power ever touches blood because there is SO MUCH power in blood, etc). The coolest part is that nobody in the culture acknowledges these social mores as originating from fear of the horrific elements, instead they are embedded into the culture as simply another taboo, so at the surface something like not touching someone seems just as much an act of etiquette as ignoring another samurai’s dishonorable act.

And after playing in Rokugan (L5R setting) for a couple years, I am familiar enough with most of it to get spooked by the right things.

Smalley’s game (using last name so as not to confuse with Travis Lindquist) was set up very much like a Cthulhu style investigation. Our samurai were at winter court in a ho hum little village when weird stuff started happening. We had very little in the way of supernatural understanding of this weird, so it meant a lot of old school looking around, following up on leads, and running into shit we were REALLY not prepared for.

But he also front loaded a lot of tension in the game, which I love. From minute one we had reasons to interact with each other, reasons to question, befriend or distrust one another. I played a Scorpion, so suffice to say, few trusted me off the bat, and I never really earned much trust throughout the game, but I did get the job done I needed to (and accidentally killed a couple of the wrong people along the way). The other characters had interesting storylines to pursue as well (shame upon my family, to much temptation from the geisha house, being a bull in a china shop *cough*Utaka Battle-Maiden*cough, etc).

Spoiler Alert: I will try not to give to many spoilers here as I am not sure if Smalley will run this game again (I recommend that he does, it was a very good game), but some bits are inevitably going to slip out. You’ve been warned.

What rocked

Smalley clearly loves the setting. It is hard not to fall in love with Rokugan once you have played in it. While it feels restrictive at first, you realize after time their customs are no more bizarre than ours, which starts giving you a certain appreciate for just how bizarre we are. Social commentary aside, I could tell from his elaborate character backgrounds, his descriptions of the setting and his depictions of the NPCs that this game is one he really loves.

For the most part the characters and players gelled REALLY well. Mark, who played a Dragon Bushi never quite got fully invested in character interplay, but that may have been because of some dark secret he was hiding, I’m not sure. For the rest of us, however the character dynamics were awesome. I was especially happy that Tom and Patrick played characters that had an excuse to be naive (a girl before her gempuku, technically still a child and an Utaka Battle-Maided, as close to a barbarian as you can get while still being part of Rokugan). What this meant was that they were really open to asking questions about the culture and it was just fine (in fact appropriate) for their characters to make social blunders. In a particularly funny one Patrick’s Battle Maiden picked up Lindquist’s character by the top not and threw him over her horse (oww). Lindquist wanted to duel her but couldn’t find a suitable champion. End result he had to yield that if he asked for aid, that is how the battle maiden would give it!

I was was a hella leet Ninja. I had all the bad assery anyone could want. I killed oni, I crouching tigered up walls covered in snow. I slipped maho spells on onto dead people. I did all that, and was MISERABLE because of it. In the end I was the only one who survived, begged for seppuku and was denied it. In a particularly cool moment I had this chance to kill my lord’s daughter because I suspected her of maho. I had this conundrum. If I was right, this was my only chance to act, and my only viable act was to kill her. If I was wrong, I was killing my only friend’s daughter. I killed her… then I killed her servant… and then I found out I was wrong. You can imagine why I was such a self hater by the end.

This was my first exposure to 4th Edition L5R. I had a couple of WTF moments, but in general I think it is an improvement over 3rd.

Smalley gave us plenty of leeway to chew on the scenery, make as big a deal of little things as we wanted and generally play off of what WE thought was cool in the game. I love this, but see below…

Nobody gets a better death than poking your own eyes out with obsidian needles in an insane attempt to learn blood magic.  Yeah, whack!

What could have improved

In the end we all died (or nearly all died) not because it was a horror game where our destiny was to fail miserably but because we failed at some win condition. We needed to do steps X, Y and Z, but only every got around to X. Personally, this was a disappointment, I thought we had a great game, full of awesome action on everyone’s part and was confused when it turned out we did something “wrong”. I guess I am just not a fan of their being any wrong decisions because it tells me the GM has planned an outcome, which I am not a fan of at all. Put us in a predicament and then see where it goes. If we all die at the end because of one of our actions, or because the forces working against us are too powerful, then cool. But if we all die because we DIDN’T do a particular action, then I feel like the game is on rails and I lose interest. Luckily that didn’t happen till the very end of the game, but it left me one a bitter note.

The game was a bit TOO epic, or perhaps just too long. We had this major fight, thought the story was over and then it kept going. I would have preferred to wrap up then. It was at that point when I felt like the game started spiraling to disaster. Fun, bizarre kind of disaster; Lindquist’s character going crazy and killing everyone and my Scoprion telling the not quite adult shugenja that she needs to cut herself and perform some maho so that we can kind the bloodspeaker we missed. Cool stuff, I guess, points of tension, but also breaking the game a little. It’s like were playing “scary horror L5R” before and we’re playing “fucked up, shock therapy L5R” now.