Playtest: Ghost Lines Dark

We played Ghost Lines Dark last night. There were, of course, a few kinks to get worked out about how Cthulhu Dark relates to Ghost Lines. But it was a lot of fun and seemed to work over all.

I stole Judd’s idea of having the PCs be a crew of new recruits mentored by Orlence, a legendary master bull who was too drunk to operate. This nicely gave a reason for a bunch of new recruits to all be working a train line without much supervision.

I also used the Ghost Lines map that john posted on his blog. They didn’t get very far, so it didn’t come up much. But I liked having a bunch of places names and an idea how things were arranged. (I think that the “add a fact to the map” mechanics I threw into Ghost Lines Dark would come up more in a multi-session campaign rather than a single session playtest.)

We had three PCs:

Adric Dunvil who acted as their Spider (an Iruvian, he was also skilled as a Rook I think) old friends with Caul, afraid of rats after a terrible experience with a swarm of ghost rats in Bright Harbor.

Caul Hellyers, Iruvian Owl and Rook. He hadn’t actually passed the final exam for the bull training, but a kindly master bull named Pholonia gave him a passing mark anyway. (My GM failure: Pholonia should have been the drunk master bull that they were operating under. Gotta reuse NPCs as much as possible.)

Aran Laudius, their Sevoran Anchor, addicted to fermented beetle wings that the brew out in Cullfield.

I decided that much of the electro-rails industry was located in Southpointe. Near the Imperial City, Southpointe was a crossroads city, so it would be a good place to put all the trainyards and such. The PCs had been through some basic bull training but never fought an actual ghost before setting off west, toward the Imperial City.

As the train pulled out of Southpointe, Orlence pulled Caul aside. “Listen, kid. There are some secrets that you don’t want to know about. You know that refrigerated car at the back of the train? Stay away from it.” Then Orlence stomped off to the bar (and was never seen sober again.)

So naturally, the first thing the PCs did was to go back the the refrigerator car to investigate. It was covered in signs saying “Keep Out – authorized Personnel Only.” The car was locked shut, but a few rolls got the door open. Well, not “open”. They couldn’t undue the lock on the door, but they used their electro-hooks to pry the bottom half of the door apart from the jamb enough that they could fit through with their encounter suits. Two bulls went inside while one stayed out to be lookout and keep the train’s porters from asking too many questions.

Inside were several dozen chest freezers, about the size of a coffin. Knocking the padlock off of the nearest one, the bulls found a human body (male, adult, naked) frozen in ice. The Owl’s spirit goggles didn’t show any soul inside the body, so it was either dead or a Hollow. Checking the corpse over determined that the body was still apparently alive.

Somebody was secretly transporting dozens of Hollow bodies into the Imperial City. (In retrospect: Perhaps I should have made more clear that this was likely illegal, The bulls were curious about this but didn’t worry about how the Hollow got there or where they were going.)

By this time, Caul was on lookout duty and saw an approaching ghost with his spirit goggles. The boys climbed up onto the top of the train and headed up the front of the train to confront it. Aran quickly tried to arrange the body so it looked like the Hollow tried to escape on its own. This was about as convincing as it might be in the ten seconds he took to do so.

Caul’s player asked “So what does this ghost look like?” and I natural responded “That’s a great question. What does this ghost look like?” The ghost, it turned out, looked like an elderly man with a long, animated beard and no long. He was stretched out and twisted in odd ways, so that he was over nine feet tall and had impossibly long arms. Asking a second player for a detail, the spirit inspired pain and nausea in the stomachs of anyone that looked at him. I asked the third player “What is still surprisingly human about this ghost?” The only part of the ghost that wasn’t horribly twisted were his eyes. Old ghost man had kindly old grandfather eyes, that just wanted to be close to the PCs, even as his hideous gnarled claw hands ripped at their encounter suits.

Aran, their anchor, was the last to leave the refrigerator car, but he tried to get the ghost’s attention. A roll (risking mental trauma, naturally) got the ghosts attention. I wasn’t clear from the original game exactly how Anchors gets the ghost to focus on them (just that their job was to withstand the ghost’s attentions). Aran decided to get the ghost’s attention by pretending to recognize it as a long lost relative. “Uncle Bob! I’ve missed you!” (Side note: “Bob” is not on the name list. This was a deliberate decision on Aran’s player’s part. Bulls, you see, never nickname ghosts with names that have been cleared. Sharing a name with a ghost is bad luck; it connects the spirit to you. So if you have to name a ghost, you give it a weird or archaic name that no one uses any more. Like “Bob”.)

Aran’s excellent roll and some trauma taken meant that the ghost was laser focused on him. It flew right through Caul (Harm roll, didn’t result in any Harm though) on the way back down the train to where the Anchor was. Caul slashed it with a lightning hook as it went by, and the ghost’s sad old man eyes turned to look at him in confusion. “Why are you hurting me when I just want to be close to my loving family?” the eyes seemed to ask. “Uncle Bob” hugged onto Aran and caused him some more trouble while Adric stood back. He was playing it safe, letting the other two risk themselves against the ghost (and it showed: in the end, Adric had suffered the least out of the three). Adric threw a spirit bottle underneath, yelled for everyone to get back and launched a lightning-web. An excellent roll caught the ghost perfectly. The clear glass bottle was now full of swirling green-grey fog. As you watched, occasionally those sad, confused eyes would drift past and look at you pleading to be freed.

The bulls were, naturally, jubilant after bagging their first real ghost. They decided to hunt down Orlence and show off their good work. They stormed off through some public bits of the train, showing off their full spirit bottle. (If Ghost Lines is steampunk Ghostbusters, then this would be the “We came! We saw! We kicked its ass!” moment in the hotel lobby. A brief moment of self-congratulation at how destructive and successful their first real job went.) Orlence was getting drunk in the train car with the bar. As the PCs walk in, Orlence is arguing with the bartender, demanding more alcohol. As Orlence slumps onto the table, Adric plops the spirit bottle in his hand. Orlence only realizes that it isn’t alcohol only when those sad, dead eyes stare up at him.

Congratulatory drinks all around, celebrating their first bagged ghost. I realized then that I had no idea what the bulls do with a ghost they caught in the spirit bottle. Taking a ghost into the city wasn’t allowed, obviously, but just throwing it back into the poison fog seemed strange and wasteful. Orlence drunkenly explained that some bulls smuggle ghosts into town and burn them to make electroplasm. Make some money on the side. Totally illegal but it pays better than their real job.

Somewhere in this conversation, we got talking about the ghosts in the wilderness. Someone said that they were glad that they’d never end up like Uncle Bob. Orlence told them about another bull that he saw when he was an apprentice. Guy fell from the train outside Duskwall. Next time Orlence worked the Duskwall line, they had to clear the bull’s own ghost from the line. That, he explained, was the end fate waiting for all of the bulls.

The bulls don’t ask about the Hollow bodies on ice, but Caul gets an idea. He gets wondering what happens when you put a ghost into a Hollow body. He hopes to be able to resurrect Uncle Bob once more. Caul heads back to the refrigerator car. He hasn’t explained his plan, but Adric and Aran are curious about the Hollow, so they follow.

Civilians don’t like to go out into the poison fog, so nobody’s been in the refrigerator car. The Hollow is still where they left it. Without saying a word, Caul upends the bottle into the Hollow’s mouth. Suddenly, the Hollow’s eyes flip open, with the same confused, tragic look as the ghost had. The body starts trying to claw its way out, but it is still stiff from being frozen and can barely move.

Now that they have made a zombie, no one is sure what to make of it. Adric is a bit shocked. Aran is the most horrified. This is when he explains how death is the ultimate trauma you can go through. When your spirit is ripped from your body, it permanently damages your psyche. “Aran, why do you know this?” Adric asks. Aran explains that he was technically dead for five minutes during a training accident and his spirit had separated from his body, making him technically a ghost possessing his own Hollow body. This trauma was why Aran was now an addict and an Anchor: his near death experience gave him a natural affinity for ghosts. And relevant to their current situation, a spirit that was dead for a few minutes is messed up. A ghost that was dead for years or centuries would never be a functioning human being again. Now the bulls have a real problem on their hands. If they take a possessed Hollow into the Imperial City, then they’ll all be in trouble.

Uncle Bob is waking up and trying to claw at Aran’s heavy encounter suit, but the suit is too tough for the still half frozen Hollow body to do anything. Caul runs off to get Orlence for guidance while Aran holds Uncle Bob down.

Orlence is drunker than before. He’s starts cursing Caul out when Caul says they went into the refrigerator car, and is even more shocked when he’s told about the ghost in the body. He drunkenly stumbles up from his stool and eventually manages to get his encounter suit helmet on. Unfortunately, Orlence has no idea what to do with the guy once they get there. From the front of the train, the bulls all hear the whistle that means they’re getting close to Imperial City.

Adric has an idea, though. He’s going to set up a lightning cage inside the car with Uncle bob inside, then drag the hollow body out. This wouldn’t be enough to separate a living person from their body, it could separate a ghost from a Hollow. Uncle Bob’s eyes still plead for help from the bulls as they loop a cable around his feet and plant him in the middle of the electric field generators. Adric risks physical harm and winds up being pulled through the lightning fields when Uncle Bob starts kicking. But Bob is pulled through anyway. The Hollow’s head breaks open and starts bleeding on the floor, while Bob’s ghost was torn t shreds in the electric field.

Orlence is passed out in the corner by now. The bulls decide to leave him there with Uncle Bob. Either he’ll look like he was poking around where he shouldn’t or he’ll look like he singlehandedly saved the train from a ghost-possessed Hollow. Orlence is drunk enough that he won’t recall what happened. The bulls clear out before the train pulls into the station, doing one last very public patrol of the train. (The bulls never found out what happened to Orlence, but he didn’t work the Bayside line again.)

We wrapped up with playing the downtime a bit. I need to adjust the Ghost Lines dark rules a bit, as they earned a lot more money by sidejobs instead of their job as bulls. Everyone worked a side job. Aran, a Sevoran, also went drinking in the pub and bought his Trauma down by taking a mental scar “What about Uncle Bob?” which symbolized his sympathy for the ghosts they were destroying. Aran also worked as a bouncer at the same bar, got some Harm for his trouble but paid off a favor that he owed Ty Cronel the Fixer (a nasty criminal NPC that didn’t figure in very much). Caul chose the most sedate job possible: basketweaving, while Adric went leviathan hunting. The game ended with Adric bursting in on Caul’s gentle basket weaving, excited about leviathan hunting and about the awesome lead that he earned on the side job. (shit, I forget now what the lead was. Something lucrative in northern Akoros.) If this had been the first session of a campaign instead of a one-shot, that lead would have been where we picked up next session.

I liked the game a lot! The setting really worked nicely. The Cthulhu Dark adaptation mostly did its job, with most PCs taking varying amount of Harm and Trauma. Think that two or three ghosts and you’d be close to dead and ready to buy some scars in your downtime. (I think a few of the feedback loops only kick in over a few jobs instead of one single job, though.)

Very cool. Would play again.

Might play again next week, actually. We had too many players show up, so we separated into two groups and the latter played Pandemic and Elder Sign. So now I have to run Ghost Lines for those people at some point.

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