Last Sunday, I lied to my players. I lied to them quite a lot.
We played a One-Shot session with a pre-alpha version of my own homebrew RPG system.
Here´s my original proposal in short form:
- A one-shot session, not a campaign (only partially true)
- Post-post apocalyptic setting (Lie)
- Low technology level, no science fiction (Lie)
- No magic-users (Lie)
- The game takes place on Earth (Lie) in the year 2184 (lie!)
Here´s a brief rundown of what happened, as well as a big marker for when any of the lies were revealed. Also, music, click to relax:
The year is 2184, mankind has barely survived several global wars which nuclear and chemical bombardments leveled, polluted or otherwise ruined most of the major cities and poisoned the waters for years to come.
All major networks are lost, including the satellite networks and the power grid. Traffic networks are also mostly useless, as the major cities are toxic wastelands. You can have all the roads you want, but there is no use for them if everywhere they lead is ruination.
Pockets of humanity have retreated to sparsely populated areas that are not as badly ravaged by the fallout as others.
Most animal life, especially birds and fish are wiped from the face of the earth.
The events started in a place called Settlement 16, part of a chain of settlements centered around “The Citadel”.
These settlements rely upon each other (for basic production of food and clothing) and especially on the Citadel, because it is the only source of clean water and energy.
Life is simple and uneventful, the only interesting thing happening is that about once a year, the brightest and smartest are asked to join the citadel for the Ascension programme, an initiative to push forward the restoration efforts (rediscover old technology, drive development of new technology, erect settlements in other parts of the world, etc.).
The players took the roles of 5 pre-built characters, ordinary human beings and inhabitants of settlement 16:
Ronald, the farmer
Olga, the teacher
Claus, the smart kid (son of the farmer and teacher)
Odo, the village constable
Rois, the village ranger
This is an account of the events, as clear as I can tell them, Act 2 was highly chaotic, with a 4-way party split. I think we managed it decently, but it makes it a bit hard to tell a coherent narrative.
The most important lies and GM notes are marked in the text, I will get back to them, and why you shouldn´t do that, afterwards.
Feel free to skip ahead, as the plot is very confusing to read if you weren´t there. 🙂
Act 1: Racket at the barn
The first scene sees the arrival of Citadel representative Ashur Kodama at the family´s house. His intent is obvious, Claus has been selected for induction into the Ascension programme.
Over dinner, a lively discussion takes place, with Ronald, the father arguing against this, Olga, the mother being cautious and the son himself being curious (Even if it is for the wrong reasons, his first question is if there would be girls at the Citadel)
Scene 2 takes place at the edge of the forest, where the ranger Rois patrols and discovers a group of wild bears rushing towards the village, obviously agitated by something.
She takes up pursuit, and as she leaves the forest, sees strange lights in northern sky (This is actually a space battle taking place in the planet´s orbit.)
The bears crash into the barn of the family´s farm. Rois whistles an alarm to warn the inhabitants of the house and village.
In the meantime, Odo, one of the settlement´s constables is visited by Morgan Leland, the Citadel´s chief of security.
They briefly reminisce about old times and their weapons of office, but are soon cut short by a loud noise coming from the outermost farmhouse.
Morgan signals the hovercraft and they both break into a run for the farm.
The family is also disturbed by the racket the bears are making outside on the barn and begin filtering out of the house to see what is going on.
The bears appear to be quite disoriented, breaking down one of the barn´s wooden walls, the one nearest to the farmhouse.
Olga seizes the opportunity and throws an oil lamp at them as they break through.
Three of them, as well as the wooden wall are covered with burning oil.
A brief melee occurs, in which the bears, by now panicking, are held at bay with makeshift torches, still, one of them manages to seriously injure Ronald with a swipe of it´s claw across his chest, before being eviscerated by Rois´hunting knife.
Odo and Morgan arrive a little later and lay into the animals with taser pistol and pulse rifle.
The fight is swiftly ended when the hovercraft with the rest of the Citadel security personnel arrives, taking down the last of the beasts with their pulse rifles.
However, unbeknownst to them, representative Kodama was inside the barn, and gets mowed down as well. A shot pierces his lung and he falls unconscious.
Frantic activity ensues, the fire is brought under control and the decision is made to bring Kodama and the wounded Ronald to the citadel.
Act 2: Arrival at the citadel
As our protagonists arrive at the citadel, a steel and concrete edifice dominated by two central towers, they rush to the infirmary to take care of the wounded… with the exception of Claus, who sneaks off towards a different corridor.
He slips into an elevator, riding it all the way to the top of the structure.
He surveys the area, crosses a bridge to the second tower and rides another elevator back down, to the second story platform which appears to harbor the dam for the hydroelectric power plant as well as a runway and two small aircraft.
This is what he saw from the top of the tower:
He also notices three meteor-like objects falling towards the citadel, from the direction of the strange lights in the sky.
In the infirmary, Ronald is stitched up, while Morgan get the news that the orbital platforms are under attack.
Morgan, Odo and Rois venture towards the basement, acting upon a contingency plan that Morgan was given “for emergencies”.
Olga and Ronald venture out as well, separately, sneaking away from the remaining guards, who seem to be concerned with other things (an attack, apparently) than guarding civilians.
Olga finds some classrooms with computer terminals and manages to get a map of the area as well as the information that, yes, there is research regarding space travel, but she is not authorized to view it.
Still, it confirms her suspicions that there is more to this than they were told.
(Part of the second lie is revealed. What I didnt´t reveal yet: Mankind has become a space-faring race, with colonies spread throughout multiple solar system.)
In the basement, Odo and Rois follow Morgan past the water purification plant and all kinds of machinery and computer banks. They arrive at a kind of library / museum, where Morgan instructs them to help carry an astrolabe, which can apparently help save Kodama in some fashion.
While Rois helps, Odo takes a look at some of the antiquities: An ancient sword, and a papyrus scroll, which are displayed very prominently, as if for an exhibition of some kind.
As she observes the scroll, she is befallen by a mental attack of some kind (Nephilim possession, Odo is in the process of becoming a simulacrum to Muchbirin). This is what I gave to the player:
Rois, as she touches the astrolabe, is victim to a similar fate. (Player rolls FIVE setbacks, which is an abysmal result. Her mental resistance is immediately overcome, she succumbs to the will of Agmos a Nephilim of the High Priestess Arcanum. At this point, I briefly take both of the possessed players to a separate room to explain. Rois´player agrees to play Agmos, one of the story villains.).
On the upper floors, after a bit of confusion, the rest of the group meet up.
A massive impact shakes the entire facility.
As Rois, Odo and Morgan run past an entrance, they see what has happened. A pod-like missile has crashed into the main courtyard, and a heavily armored figure is embattled with the security forces outside.
Morgan Leland rushes outside to aid her troops in organizing a defence.
Rois/Agmos is able to instantly and completely heal Kodama´s wounds (Lie #3, there is no magic, oops), and they decide that it would be prudent to get to the command center in the upper levels of the tower, to ascertain the situation.
At the urging of Claus, he and his mother Olga split from the group in order to go to the repair bay, where Claus hopes to use his knowledge (a secret I have assigned to the character before the game) to overcharge the pulse rifles, in order to overpower the unknown assailants.
This plan goes awry, when he finds out that the power packs are already overcharged. (The implication here was that the power packs given to the settlement were intentionally throttled to keep a tighter control on the villagers by severely limiting their access to electricity. I am unsure if I communicated this well enough.)
Act 3: Finale
Meanwhile, Olga and Claus are noticed by one of the armored attackers, who begins stomping towards them. They manage to beat him to the elevator, but it arrives to slowly and the massive figure with blood red eyes confronts them.
Fortunately, he is not there to kill them, on the contrary, he is surprised to find civilians within the facility, which forces him to change his plans: They must be brought out of the war zone.
During a short elevator ride, he assures them that he and his allies are here to liberate the humans, and that they have been lied to.
(Here, in my head, several scenes run together, so my account might not be entirely accurate. At some point, the PCs learn that he is the Nephilim Eresh Szat and that the citadel as well as the entire colony is an elaborate setup to create strong human simulacra for the Nephilim operating the facility. The next two lies are uncovered: We are not playing a post-apocalyptic setting at all, and this is in the same universe as the previous campaign (Eresh Szat was an anchor point for the group there.))
At this point, the main elevator of the tower becomes quite the choke point, with various characters riding it up and down. The situation comes to a head when the three hostile Nephilim, Agmos, Muchbirin and Kodama run into the rest of the group at the main elevator.
A brief firefight occurs, which Kodama evades by turning into a cloud of smoke.
Rois/Agmos is incapacitated, but Odo/Muchbirin gets away in one of the small spacecraft. She is still battling the Nephilim inside her mind, and the craft hurtles into the night sky.
The group gathers into the remaining flyer and takes off towards Eresh Szat´s ship, the Integrity. On their journey, they are bombarding him with questions, many of which are answered…
(The original plan here was to give each survivor one question, totalling three here, but I caved to my own desire to unveil more about the setting and gave each of them two. Here, the last two lies were revealed. No, you are not Earth, and no, the year is not 2184, rather it´s the 28th century.)
- Kodama is alive, tough if he can evade capture from the other two Judges is uncertain
- It is unclear wether Muchbirin has taken over Odo´s body as a simulacrum, or if Odo resists
- The three surviving protagonists will be taken to Earth, the real Earth, to stand witness in the trial of Agmos, who will be tried for crimes against humanity.
Game Master notes
So, let´s get to the elephant in the room first. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, I do not think that it was a good idea to hide so many fundamental truths from the players. It went okay, but it might have been catastrophic.
I got the buy-in from the players for “a post-post-apocalyptic scenario”, and presented them a “sci-fi-fantasy-mystery-horror” plot.
It´s a bit like going to the movies to see No country for old men, only to find out that the movie has switched to the X-Men at some point in the middle.
Both fine movies, but usually you want to get what you ordered. (Damn, should do a food analogy, okay, it´s like going to a restaurant ordering a pizza, and right in the middle of eating it the chef runs out of the kitchen and heaps a t-bone steak, a chocolate ice cream and a pile of doritos onto your pizza.)
Generally, having mysteries within the game is fine, great even, but this was a bit too much. I think having NPCs lie is a-okay, but the lies should stay within the game, not on the meta-level above.
What went well?
Here´s a few things that I think went especially well:
The opening scene, starting with a conversation scene helped people get into character.
The opening act split-up: I did this for the second time now, having the players start in separate places and uniting them worked out rather well.
Having planned the first act rather meticulously worked out really nicely. And by “planned” I mean “having made a flowchart with the player actions I anticipate”. “Kodama gets seriously hurt” was in there. Another path that would have put a much different tone on the second act would have been: “Kodama is forced to defend himself magically, the players witness this and are captured and taken to the citadel because they know too much (with a possible hovercraft chase when they try to resist arrest)”
“Theater of the mind” combat for the second and third act, I used the maps only as a visual aid here. First act was performed with an ad hoc drawn map tough.
What went wrong?
My initiative / Speed system not tested. This was due to a blunder of mine (forgot to print out an important gagdet, the turn clock) and I made a snap decision to just give each player the same amount of actions, in order of their speed.
Good decision to keep the game flowing, but my turn system is untested now.
I didn´t play the Morgan Leland character to it´s full potential. Specifically, I should have played her more authoritarian, and acknowledged the fact that she and Odo were supposed to know each other a bit more.
The core resolution mechanic of my homebrew system needs severe simplification. This is probably out of scope for this blog post, I might write a separate one once I am done simplifying it. The gist of it: A combination of too many mechanical actions (picking up many different dice, rolling, partial re-rolling) and three axes of results (setback/advantage, numerical score, number of required successes) made the resolution of combat rolls too onerous.
Back to the drawing board.
Why this specific story?
Actually, I have no idea where the specific plot points came from, the thing with the citadel basically plopped into my head a few month ago.
What I intentionally built was important tough. The Nephilim RPG is one of my favourite settings, however, it has a problem: Basically, the Nephilim taking over a human simulacrum (host body) and relegating the original owner´s mind to the role of a passive observer… well, that´s not very nice, is it?
So, my solution to this was actually supposed to be explored in the old campaign. What if there was a large-scale unveiling of the existence of the Nephilim, and what if, after resolving the initial shock and horror (there would surely be pogroms and similar nasty things, maybe wars), the two races got along?
And after that follows the question that led me to this scenario: What about the Arcana that specifically would not want this? The High Priestess would certainly not be at ease when so many secrets are unveiled, and, even worse, the Tower, the Blasted Tower, would do their worst to undo this.
A new campaign (not a one-shot)
Outline the campaign (Preliminary idea: medieval, in the Nephilim universe)
Write a pitch for the players
Prepare a session zero, specifically: character creation, establishing the characters within the game world, establish the some story locations (I want to try doing this together with the players)
- Write character classes
Update my homebrew system
Add damage and armor rules (Current rules are very basic/perfunctory)
Simplify the core resolution mechanic
Streamline the combat rolls a bit, specifically, I think Acrobatics (Dodge) must have some kind of diminishing returns when being attacked by multiple people
Update the character sheet (It worked, I specifically designed it as a one-page lookup, but it needs more shortcuts)
Make rules for character creation (probably some kind of point-buy system)
Write up some skills for a medieval campaign (Probably at least: horse-riding, melee weapon specialisations
- Add a magic system (I have already started this for the Nephilim NPCs), I want to do justice to the cool magic system of the original game, but also improve upon it´s mechanical rigidiy and remove/rework some of the more esoteric spells
There´s a lot to do. Let´s get to it!