Tag Archive for mystery

[Actual Play] Death Takes a Holiday

At the Bearded Quail blog, they discussed their experiences playing the (original version of) Death Takes a Holiday.

The Divided House and other stories

The Divided House and other stories is a game I wrote for Giacomo Vicenzi’s Spooky Design Contest 2016. It’s a loose, freeform narrative game, inspired by “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”, The Twilight Zone, House of Leaves, Archipelago III and the board game Power Grid.

Al Amarja Today!

al amarja today logo
I wanted to GM a short campaign of Over the Edge, the classic rpg of surreal conspiracies. The biggest problem with the game, I figured, was that there was no clear core activity for the PCs to pursue as a group. So I decided to frame the game with the PCs as journalists, working for Al Amarja Today! (the island’s leading newspaper). this gives them a good reason to work together, and a good reason to go poking into every weird conspiracy and event on the island.

Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I rewrote the actual rules from scratch. Again. This new version bears basically zero resemblance to the last time I rewrote Over the Edge. I borrowed significantly from tinyFate, Archipelago III, Itras By, Gumshoe and Small World to make a totally new system:

Al Amarja Today
Al Amarja answer cards

So far, playtests indicate that seven is too many players for me to handle with this game, but not much else. I’m really unsure on the number of traits people get, the number of available answers, the ratio of Yes and No cards, etc. These all could be off wildly, but only further playtesting will let us know.

Anomalistic Extrasensory Techniques for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Anomalistic Extrasensory Techniques for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a radical new technique for dealing with mental illnesses and stresses. Or may it is just another 200 word RPG I wrote about psychics in group therapy invading each other’s minds to heal their mental wounds.

Yeah, like Psychonauts.

I Pray God Will Curse the Writer

I Pray God Will Curse the Writer is a live action roleplaying game I wrote, inspired by bits of the Hastur mythos as described by Robert Chambers, John Tynes, Dennis Detwiller and Robin Laws.

All the larp files in one .zip file

Cast member character sheets
Inhabitant of Carcosa character sheets
Answer cards
Whisper Labyrinth cards
Supplemental cards
The King in Yellow
Fates for the King in Yellow to distribute
papers full of weird writing for the author

Google Doc of the main text

This larp is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons License

[Death Takes a Holiday] Major Revision

I’ve been working to revise an old game of mine into a version that I’m more happy with. So I took another mechanic that I’ve been using and jammed the game into that. And now you have an exciting new version of Death Takes a Holiday, my game of substitute Grim Reapers finding that Death’s job isn’t as easy as it first appears.

This version uses Tarot cards as a core mechanic. You may want to use these cards I made for the game, though you could just as easily use any deck of Tarot cards as long as all the players can more or less agree what a card signifies.

[D&D] Tao Zi, Githzerai Avenger

Tao Zi is my current D&D 4e PC, a Githzerai Avenger who has been exiled to the mortal world for mysterious reasons.

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.

[House of Masks] Version 0.3 playtest

House of Masks playtest

Last night, we played House of Masks for the first time in two or three years. Six players, total play time about two hours to tell a complete, interesting fantasy story. Everybody seemed to have fun, I think, and the fundamentals of the game design mostly seemed to work.

(The following is mostly me hinking about the game’s systems and such, with relatively little detail of the fiction we generated. That fiction was really cool, but it would have to be a different post.)

I first wrote house of Masks for Game Chef 2008 and get the urge to work on it again every year or two. The playtest of yore had suggested that the core situation and characters were interesting but the core system was problematic. So the new version completely rips out the old mechanics and replaces them. Now the game is a tight, simple blend of my favorite bits of Fiasco, Ganakagok and A Penny for My Thoughts.

The game keeps the basic scenario: a big epic fantasy game, wherein a sorcerer-king built a castle where the physical world and spirit world meet. Any spellcaster who enters the castle has their spirit self awaken, and that spirit self can then take control of their body. Thus, each character is controlled by two people alternating. There are three main characters:

Castor, the sorcerer-king conquering the earth,
Inanna, a foreign princess due to marry Castor to settle peace between their two kingdoms
Thalia, the last surviving mermaid, whose people were killed in the war.

Each character has an alternate personality, played by a different character (e.g., Castor is suave and cool and cunning, his spirit side Pollux is violent and angry and full of rage). There are some simple rules for switching who controls the character at a given moment, which makes for fun tag-team play. In a few cases, which player delivered a line made for dramatic or comedic irony: if Inanna (who can only tell the truth) says something, that is different than if her spirit Kur says it (as Kur can only lie). In one case, Heather used the switching to get off the narrating hook and transfer that responsibility to her partner Ross.

9I fear that I sidelined my partner Chuck as the game went on, which was my own fault and is probably something else to look out for. There’s a rule for that that came up once or twice but I never applied to myself even though I should have, which would have guaranteed Chuck got a chance to control Inanna some more.)

The setup phase is supposed to direct everyone into conflict with everyone else. This seemed to work well, though some desires fell by the wayside. That’s fairly natural in a GMless game of this size (six players!). We also sort of forgot to include the formalized “block another player’s desire” stage. But since we worked fine without that aspect, perhaps it isn’t necessary.

The key for the current system is a constrained deck of Tarot-like cards. Most of these were pulled from the Deck of Many Things that Wizards of the Coast released a while ago. These each got a bit of symbolic meaning attached to them (The Moon means “Secrets and Mysteries”, the Donjon means “To be unable to act, etc.). These cards would be interpreted, like in Ganakagok, to determine where the story went from there. The cards are used to begin and end scenes and establish setting details: to start a scene, the player with the Boon of Beginnings draws a crd and shows it. Then they pick two people to interpret the card. Each offers a scenario for where the game goes, and the Boon holder chooses the version that they prefer. The Boon is transferred to the person who made the better pitch, and the game then proceeds based on what was said.

When your scene reaches a climactic turning point (or if the scene is dragging and needs some energy injected into it), the player with the Boon of Endings draws a card and gets two interpretations as well. These help resolve the scene. The third Boon, the World’s Boon, was supposed to govern setting and NPCs, but it mostly seemed like it was getting int he way rather than assisting. I’ll need to rework that Boon or eliminate it entirely.

Each character Aspect gets their own sorcery card that they can use to replace the drawn card if they want. These did get used twice I think (out of a possible six). So they weren’t hugely important in play. But I feel like it is good to give players a way out if the card drawn doesn’t speak to them at all. One time that they did come into play (during a big fantasy battle, Castor’s evil side replaced the card drawn with a card of “Destruction” and we had two compelling interpretations of what his magic would destroy exactly. So I feel like they did benefit the game, even if they didn’t see too much use.

The deck in general worked really well. Sometimes the deck gave us a card that seemed to fit perfectly. Possibly too perfectly: in a few cases, it gave us a card that exactly matched what was already going on in the fiction. for example, when we went to resolve a big battle, we got the card “Sword: Violence and anger” which didn’t really answer our question of “how does the battle play out”. We already knew there would be swords and violence. Possibly we need to tweak the deck somewhat. I’m not sure what to change (though I may add more cards to the deck).

There’s no formalized endgame mechanic, but we reached a point where consensus agreed that the story was complete. At this point, I don’t feel like an endgame is needed as the story will naturally fall out of its unstable equilibrium into something more stable, or else the conflict will escalate until everything is destroyed. Future playtests might not reach a simple ending without prodding, though. Something to keep an eye out for.

Things that were good:

In two hours, we told a complete, compelling story with all sorts of plot twists and betrayals and magic and epic action and an army of undead mermaids and tragic, misguided mistakes. The story did what I hoped it would, and the game told the sort of fantasy story that I hoped it would. It wrapped up nicely on its own without a mechanical construct to force an ending. (Is this ending on its own reliable or just a construct of our own tory gaming experience? I can’t know without more playtesting.)

Also really good: asking two people for interpretations of the cards and then picking your favorite. If one person was having n off moment, the other person usually had a good idea (and had a moment to think and process while the first answered). Sometimes, though, you got a choice between two amazingly cool options and had the agony of only picking one. Which is great, as we kept moving toward a game that we liked more as it went on.

Things that were surprising

The dreamlike atmosphere that picking one of two caused. Someone said that, towards the end, it was hard to remember which branches we had taken and which we had rejected. We also at some point were reincorporating details from the rejected paths. This made the game seem very much like a fairy tale or a dream, where continuity and logic were less important than wonder and amazement. I liked it very much, but it was completely unexpected.

Things that were less good:

Sometimes the card interpretations at the beginning of the scene threatened to take over the scene itself. We’d wind up playing before we play; telling the story of the scene and then playing it out again with little change.

Sort of related to that was a problem of connecting the card interpretations to the start of a scene. Although we were asking players for “How does this scene begin?” their answer often related to the card but gave less idea of who was in the scene or what was happening/about to happen.

Both these problems can probably be sorted out by making sure the card interpretations stay short and to the point. Next playtest I’ll try to stress that and see if it works better.

Things to do differently in the future:

Remove the World Boon? Change how it works? Something needs to be done with it.
Tweak the initial setup so that there is no formalized denial of another’s desire?
Try to keep interpretations short and to the point and about a lead-in to the scene rather than the scene itself. Possibly make an explicit limit on length for card interpretation?
Try again, see how differently things can go.
Possibly adjust or expand the Tarot card deck?
Include an option where players can volunteer to be one of the two interpretations. Near the end, Heather was asked to interpret a card, but was stumped, while Ross and I both were excited by the ideals forming in our minds. When I mentioned this, we redid picking so that Ross and I both presented our interpretations and Heather was off the hook. Directing the question at people excited by their answer is a strong technique, but should be used sparingly (otherwise the most excited and loudmouthed will overwhelm the more reserved players.)

Those are my thoughts, or most of them anyway. I’d love to hear the thoughts of anyone else who was in the playtest (or any other interested observer from the internet, too.)

[Game Chef 2012] Astronauts and Aliens rough draft

I’ve got a rough draft of my Game Chef game ready at this point: Astronauts and Aliens. It still needs some work, but I think this will be a really fun game with a bit of work.