Tag Archive for time travel

[Actual Play] So Now You’re a Time Traveler

The Party of One podcast played So No You’re a Time Traveler, my two page time travel game.

Playtest: ‘Devil John’ Moulton

Playtest report: The Devil John Moulton

This wound up longer than I meant it to be. Long story short: We playtested another game a few days ago. It went really well. It was horrible and weird and violent and darkly funny and amoral in all the ways the game was supposed to be. (You know, like a Garth Ennis written comic or a Quentin Tarantino film.) The PCs rode into poor, long-suffering Deadwater Gulch and stirred up a heap of trouble.

The basic premise of the game is that there is a mysterious figure named “the Devil John’ travelling the Wild West, making demonic pacts with anyone who will make a deal with him. He gives the buyer all the power that they want, in exchange for their soul. The PCs all made this deal for one reason or another, and now regret it. So they want to see Devil John dead. They joined together and go from town to town seeking out anyone who made a deal with Devil John. When they find the sorcerer in the town’s midst, they force some information out of the amateur occultist to find where to go hunt Devil John next.

So: the PCs are bad, bad people. But they’re trying to stop a person who is worse than them.

Character creation went really well. The basic chargen system works like playing the board/card game 7 Wonders, or drafting decks in a Magic: the Gathering tournament. Everyone gets a hand of cards, each of which has a piece of background for the character, a question to answer and a mechanical effect (usually an increase in the size of a trait’s die, sometimes other effects.) Choose one from your hand and pass the rest of the hand to the left. Then pick a new card from the new cards that you receive, and repeat.

The players all really seemed to like this aspect of the game, and it seemed to make cool, appropriate characters. Everyone mentioned how they liked the cards that I had written, which meant that they had to choose between different interesting aspects of the character as they went. One of the player, Mojo, mentioned that later on he was picking cards in part based on the mental image that was forming in his head concerning

(The game’s core mechanics are drawn from Cthulhu Dark, but expanded upon greatly. Instead of just tracking an escalating d6 for Sanity, you have four traits. Those four traits are the only dice you can ever roll. Each can be rated in a different die size, and each one has a specific unhappy ending for your character waiting in store. So eventually your ratings in the traits will go down and reach one of the four endgames. You want to roll lower than your opponent, which means that any die has a chance of winning a roll. But it also means that your d4 traits are most effective but you can only use it once or twice before reaching the endgame. Your larger die size traits you can use quite often but they will not be as helpful. This also lets you control the length of gameplay somewhat: more cards to start with gives large dice which makes for a longer game. Fewer cards make for a shorter game. With five cards in a starting hand, most people are rolling d4s and d6s and only occasionally d8s.)

Sneaky bit of game design magic I learned from Fiasco: The players read many of the cards that got passed around, even when they didn’t pick the card. So the rejected cards still helped establish tone and style. This is most important for creating the supernatural elements in the game. If you simply told the players to invent evil demonic miracles, they wouldn’t know what to write and might create genre-inappropriate abilities. But a few of the cards had demonic miracles a player could choose, which helped get all the players understand the sorts of powers they were supposed to create. And sure enough, the supernatural elements the players invented all fit the fairly specific supernatural theme and aesthetics that I hoped for in the game.

Bit that I didn’t predict: three of the four players wanted to play outright bastards, so the ‘Scruples’ cards containing moral obligations wound up being passed on. The fourth player then wound up with two Scruples, and was a relatively decent person who had committed one really bad mistake and then fell in with some really horrible people. This dynamic was very interesting, both the mechanic of card passing (which I should have expected from 7 Wonders) and then the social dynamic of the characters in actual play. I’m interested in playtesting more to see if this is a standard pattern or a weird one-time thing.

After passing the cards a few times, we wound up with four great characters:

Allen the Red-Handed
Probably the most unabashedly evil of the four, Allen is a notorious bank robber who has a trademark of dipping his hand in the blood of his murder victims. He’s done this so many times that his soul is permanently stained red. Allen sold his soul to a demon called “The Laughing Man” who had silver hair and eyes and would appear whenever you were suffering to silently laugh at your misfortune. In exchange, Allen could only be killed by the hand of an individual acting alone, never a group or a natural disaster. He also could carve your name on a bullet and have it strike unerringly. The Laughing Man demand that Allen desecrate corpses to pay back it back for the demonic miracles.

Andre the Bastard
A former robber baron, who lost his fortune on fast women, crooked gambling tables and the unfortunately timed sale of a mine. Andre has sold his soul for the ability to sway the opinions of crowds. (Never individual people, but only large groups.) He sold his soul to a creature called “The Whisperin’ Stranger” whose face was always hidden by the shadow of his wide brimmed hat, and who never spoke above a whisper. When Andre would try to sway the crowds, the Whisperin’ Stranger would walk unseen among the crowd, planting ideas in the heads of people here and there until the crowd became convinced.

Thin Jim
Thin Jim was probably the most decent and sympathetic of the PCs. Thin Jim was also a cannibal, so that says something about the game. Thin Jim had once been riding in the desert when his horse died from a rattlesnake bite. Jim then had to walk out of the desert, starving and dehydrated. Along the way, he encountered another wanderer and Thin Jim decided one man living as a cannibal was better than two dying of hunger. Thin Jim still carried a locket from the slain man, which had a picture of a young woman and a baby. The dead man’s ghost would sometimes whisper to Thin Jim in the night, saying that he was just trying to get home. Thin Jim had bargained with a demon named Hickory, that looked like a solid black clockwork squirrel and had some ability to control time. Thin Jim was given a pocket watch that could turn time back thirty seconds, and the touch of a finger would cause an item to wither and decay as if left in the desert for decades. Thin Jim also had sworn an oath to never tell a lie, which was a problem when the other PCs kept bringing up that cannibalism incident.

Mean Little Anne
Anne had been a low-life criminal, but had been abandoned by her criminal fellows because they decided a tiny little woman wouldn’t be of use to them. So she sold her soul to gain occult power that would help her be a better criminal. Anne could buy and sell intangible goods, as long as both parties agreed. She had already sold off all of her niceness to make her a better shot, which is why she was so terribly mean. Anne could also pass through any opening, no matter how small. she got her magic powers from a demon called Shade, which took the form of a different animal each time but was always in shadows, and always had eyes glowing like the coals of a fire.

So as you can see, the PCs were a gang of terrible, terrible people. Colorful and interesting, but not nice at all.

Town creation was a piece of the game that I was uncertain about, but it seemed to work out just fine. The rules I went with went like this: Starting with the GM, each player picks a question off a list of leading questions and answers it. The GM makes notes and NPCs as you go, and secretly chooses one NPC to have made a deal with Devil John. The questions were designed to make the situation filled with potential conflict and NPCs wanting things from the PCs and stuff for the PCs to mess with. It seems to have worked well enough. The town we created, Deadwater Gulch, had enough problems and NPCs and such to keep the players occupied for the two hours or so we had left.

Deadwater Gulch’s water supply had recently fouled up. Now there was very little drinkable water to be found anywhere in the area. Sheriff Halstead had started rationing the water, and made a rule where everyone coming into town had to pay a gallon of water to enter. The town shopkeeper, “Perfectly” Frank had a secret water source and was selling the water at grossly inflated prices. Everywhere he went, a gang of kids followed, begging for a sip of water.

Perfectly Frank also owned the local mines, renowned for its strange opalescent stones that were sold as a snake-oil cure-all. They were said to cure baldness, sleepiness, wheezing, coughing, typhoid, scurvy, consumption and the gout. Anything except dehydration, really. Andre the Bastard had once owned the mines in this town, but had sold them to Perfectly Frank… ten minutes before the mysterious, magical stones had been found.

(Sidenote: I need to make up a good list of town names and NPC names to use, as coming up with those in the middle of play is difficult.)

So the PCs rode into Deadwater Gulch and started stirring up trouble right away. The sheriff comes out to meet them and demands some water. Almost immediately, the PCs are threatening the sheriff and disrespecting his authority. I momentarily forget that Perfectly Frank’s water selling is supposed to be illegal and under the table, and instead have the Sheriff direct the PCs off to see Frank to buy water and donate it to the town. (In retrospect, this doesn’t get any new water into the town, but it does reinforce the basically corrupt nature of the town’s system.)

The PCs enter the tiny town shop and Perfectly Frank and Andre the Bastard immediately recognize and hate one another. Frank refuses to sell to Andre, though he suggests to Mean Little Anne that he’d sell them the water in exchange for Andre’s magical ability to sway crowds. In the end, Allen Red-Handed provokes the sheriff enough that he goes to get a posse in case this gang of armed thugs starts any trouble. When the posse gets to the corner store, Andre the Bastard gives a speech about how the real injustice in this town is Perfectly Frank hoarding the water. The sheriff feebly protests that the posse was gathered to watch over these murderous outsiders, not to lynch the local shopkeeper. The posse drags Perfectly Frank away by his feet. The sheriff pauses a moment to threaten the PCs and demand they get out of town, then he rides after the lynch mob to try to stop the murder before it happens.

Thin Jim and Mean Little Anne find a few children still hanging around the area, and offer them some of Perfectly Frank’s water. This conversation doesn’t go quite as well as one would hope. Mean Little Anne just wants to kick a kid in the head, and Thin Jim cannot tell a lie once the cannibalism thing was mentioned.But after some child wrangling and the promise of cool, drinkable water, they determine that two of the three kids are useless and send them away. The third kid, Little Timmy, seems to know something about this Devil John fellow the PCs are asking about.

The PCs spend a long time trying to interrogate this eight year old kid. Mostly, the PCs try to scare the kid into cooperating, but they overshoot and the child is simply too terrified to answer the questions. Eventually, some dice are rolled and the PCs increment slightly more toward death but the kid spills some of the beans. About a month ago, he took ill with a fever. And he doesn’t recall clearly, but he saw a strange thin man come to the house and speak to his mother. The next day, his fever cleared up but the town’s water supply fouled up at the same time. The PCs determine that the kid’s mother probably made a deal with Devil John.

They coerce the kid into taking them to meet his mother, but with a cost, complication or consequence. In this case, it turns out that the local lynching tree is right outside the kid’s house. So the sheriff and the lynch mob are all there arguing over what to do with Perfectly Frank. The magic has started to wear off, but not entirely. And people really did resent the rich guy with all the water in town. But the sheriff is arguing they should let him go.

So the gang of outlaws rides up, and Allen decides to just walk up behind the sheriff and murder him. A successful die roll leads to murdering the sheriff in front of a crowd of armed witnesses. Allen tells Andre the Bastard to use devil magic to convince the NPC mob to leave. Andre’s player starts to pontificate, but it is pointed out that he hasn’t paid the Whisperin’ Stranger’s price yet (to cut out the tongue of somebody). Until Andre does so, he can’t use his infernal power. So the mob turns on Allen and opens fire. Allen falls down apparently dead, but the Laughing Man’s sorcery protects him and he leaps back up. Allen rolls again to scare off the entire crowd who were certain he was dead. He succeeds, but I think a couple of his traits are getting close to their endgame. Allen sets about desecrating the sheriff’s corpse to appease the Laughing Man.

Meanwhile, Thin Jim ushered the kid inside so he wouldn’t see the violence going on outside. Inside, Thin Jim finds the kid’s mother and recognizes her as the woman in the locket. He starts interrogating her about Devil John, but she denies involvement. According to her, she sent that evil sorcerer packing rather than endanger her soul. The other PCs filter in and argue with her some. As they are doing so, the window shutters slam shut (despite there being no wind) and weird poltergeist activity starts up around the house. Little Timmy becomes real excited, saying that his dad had finally returned! Just like the shadowy man had promised! It turned out that Timmy had made the deal with Devil John in his fever, to be cured of the sickness and reunited with his father again. (I didn’t decide that Timmy was the warlock in town until halfway through the session. I may make that the actual rule: you decide only partway through the game which NPC made the deal and why. Timmy was chosen because he had a decent enough reason but still was unexpected. The PCs initially thought that Perfectly Frank and later the mother had made the deal with Devil John.)

Now the ghost of Timmy’s dad decides that these intruders were dangerous (after all, one of them had eaten him and the rest spent a good long time threatening his kid.) Because of Timmy’s demonic wish, the dead dad grows in ghost strength from a quiet whisper to a storm of poltergeist activity.

Nobody knows how to fight a ghost, though. Guns won’t work on it, and reasoning certainly gets them nowhere. Andre the Bastard decides that Timmy is the key to this, and that his presence allows the ghost to manifest. So eliminating Timmy will get rid of the ghost.

There’s a moment where everyone stops and looks at each other and thinks “Is he really going to murder a small child, right in front of his widowed mother and the ghost of his cannibalized father?” Andre’s player shrugs and says “well, they don’t call him the Bastard for nothing” and fires.

This does not have the desired effect. I as GM had to decide whether this plan could work or not. I came down on the side of ‘I’m not going to reward the murder of a little kid, even if he *has* sold his soul to Satan.” So instead of dismissing the ghost of the father, it made him much angrier, and he began murdering every PC in the house.

PCs started to run, when Thin Jim looked at his sheet and said “Wait, I can turn back time! I totally forgot I could do that.” Thin Jim then rewinded the previous thirty seconds and tackled Andre to stop him from killing the kid.

The other PCs still decide to split, though, as they still don’t know what to do about the ghost. Thin Jim decides that he has to appease the ghost by repaying what he took from the ghost, and by leaving the father with his family. Jim decides that this means to leave a piece of himself behind, as the father’s flesh has been incorporated into Jim’s body. Jim slices his own ear off and sets it on the table. The ghost seems to be calmed by this and fades away. Timmy and his mother sits, huddled in a corner crying.

As the PCs exit the building, Timmy begins yelling curses and says that Devil John rode off towards a town south of Deadwater Gulch. (The PCs succeeded in a final roll against the ghost that I didn’t feel was necessary, what with the Vincent Van Gogh impression and all. So I let them have the piece of information they had come looking for as a reward for incrementally inching closer to death.)

Mechanically, 5 character creation cards meant that one PC was teetering on the edge of death after only a few rolls. Most were down a point or two in most traits. 5 might be the right number for a full length single session game. For character creation, rules explanation and a short session, maybe 3-4 cards? 9 or so for a more campaign length story, I think.

Most traits got rolled by themselves or in pairs. Never were three or more dice rolled together that I recall.

I totally forgot about a few bits that I intended to do, like having the PCs define rumors and facts about Devil John. Or having scars force rerolls (which I will likely abandon).

PCs were more explicitly evil than I predicted or hoped. That may be the issue that most requires attention and reworking. Or maybe I should accept that as an aspect of the game and design to facilitate that gameplay, which is slightly different than the gameplay I had imagined to begin with.

Overall, the game was really fun and interesting and cool in a way that doesn’t exactly match up with any other game I can think of. The players all seemed enthusiastic about the game.

So Now You’re a Time Traveler

So Now You’re A Time Traveler

I wrote a simple little two page hack of Cthulhu Dark made to run a stropped down time travel game comparable to Continuum.

It’s called So Now You’re a Time Traveler. It was pretty fun when we tried it out.

[Doodles and Dragons] Gelatinous Cube

[InSpectres/Inspace AP] “In Theory”

We have been talking about playing InSpace (the scifi variant for InSpectres) for a while now. We made characters over a month ago, but work schedules and real life hassles have been getting in the way, preventing the actual play. finally, though, the stars aligned last night and everyone was available, so the Second Chance could actually take flight.

The Second Chance is a starship primarily crewed by humans, but it is owned by a strange alien benefactor. She had agreed to support the crew on their mission to explore and investigate mysteries, though she had a few areas of particular interest: the ancient race of aliens called the Forerunners, any warps in time or space and negatively charged tachyon fields. The ship’s science officer, Miri Peirce knew of a human scientist that was an expert in tachyon fields, Dr. Cherenkov. So the ship’s first step would be to consult with Dr. Cherenkov and learn more about the behavior of negatively charged tachyon fields.

Dr. Cherenkov was studying a field of gases circling an electromagnetically charged black hole on a small research space station. As the Second Chance came out of the jumpgate, they established radio contact with the base. Just then, there were three strange energy pulses from the field of gases, and the radio went dead.

Thus ended my (slightly too long) backstory, and we arrived at the central question of the session: “Where is Everybody?” Finding the answer to that mystery would be the central focus of the session from there on out. (This would have been the opening teaser segment in a TV show. Then we’d play the opening credits, go to a commercial break, and come back to the players investigating.

Dramatis Personae:

Captain Noah Harrington, the often underestimated ship’s captain (played by Ross for the first half)
Miri Peirce, the ship’s science officer, who used a series of cybernetic chips to store all the scientific data that she needed (played by Amber)
Joshua Davies, mysterious cybernetic monk, working as the ship’s janitor and general laborer (played by Heather)
“Mercury”, the scruffy communications officer (played by Ross in the second half)

The captain ordered the ship’s pilot to dock with the station, despite the lack of radio response. We used Contacts rolls generally to order around the rest of the crew, so Ross rolled and got a 6. Excellent success! He described Sugita the pilot trying a crazy maneuver that would force additional air into the ship from the station, thereby saving the ship valuable resources like air and refueling time. But he didn’t describe the ship docking safely or smoothly, and the maneuver involved the ship ramming into the hold with enough force to fill the cargo hold. That sounded like a sudden stop, so I had everyone take 1 Stress from the sudden jerking around. Davies and the captain were fine (Davies gained a Cool die, useful for later on). Amber rolled badly for Dr. Peirce, though, and she took a -2 penalty. (This was the beginning of a long, nasty series of stress for Dr. Peirce.) Amber described how Miri had been on the stairs when the ship stopped suddenly, causing her to fall and break her legs. (That -2 penalty took her Athletics score from 2 to 0, meaning she couldn’t accomplish anything physical unaided.)

Ross’s narration from his roll also added in some clues to what happened to everyone. Specifically, when Sugita looked at the environmental readout, she noticed that the micro-organism count was zero. Not in normal levels of a few bacterial parts per million. Not below the normal levels. Zero airborn microbes. That’s a bit weird. Contacting Miri over the intercom, there was some bickering (Sugita not realizing she had caused Peirce to be injured in the docking). The science officer went to inform the captain of this, suggesting some caution entering the station. Just as the captain was ordering that no one leave the ship, we cut to Joshua Davies, outside the ship in the docking bay, hooking up refueling tubes and waste disposal systems and stuff as part of his job.

(Getting the Captain involved in a plot is easy, and the science officer is going to be a key role in a science fiction mystery game. But I wasn’t sure how to get the janitor involved. This was step one: forcibly push him into the plot. Eventually, we found that his monk nature was more useful for getting involved in the plot. But for the first half of the game, I was worried that we didn’t have enough time spotlighting our gentle cybernetic monk. By the end it all worked out, though.)

This led to a fairly long digression where no one was sure what to do about Joshua Davies. Leave him outside? Bring him into the ship? The ship’s security officer Ribbons of Glee (a human raised by aliens) brought Davies back into the cargo hold and sat with him there for a few hours while the science officer did some tests and watched to see if they died.

No one died, so it was decided that they’d send some people out of the docking bay and into the space station proper. As the two most exposed (if there was any exposure) crew members, Ribbons of Glee and Joshua Davies would go. And the Captain and science officer would also go, as the most qualified to investigate.

Miri and Ribbons of Glee started going through Dr. Cherenkov’s stuff, while Captain Harrington and Davies searched the station for anyone still aboard. They didn’t find anyone, but the captain noticed that many of the computer terminals on the station had been blown out during the energy pulses. This was just as Miri was putting one of the data chips into her brain-slot to study what Cherenkov had been interested in. Which seemed like a really natural time for me as GM to declare that another pulse washed over the station, causing more stress for Dr. Peirce. Amber rolled badly here again, losing some points from Academics as her chip slot was damaged. We decided that she had some scarring around the slot, which prevented her from taking out the quantum physics chip that she had in. Which meant that, among other things, Miri couldn’t sleep or relax or stop thinking about negatively charged tachyon fields.

As she recovered from the pain, Miri went to say something to Ribbons of Glee, and she realized that he had vanished during the pulse.

The good news was that she better understood what Dr. Cherenkov had been doing (with a good Academics roll in here). She knew that the energy pulses were fields of negatively charged tachyons. Records indicated that Dr. Cherenkov had been trying to amplify the natural energy pulses of the gas field. Some quick analysis showed that the pulses always came in pairs, with the next due in twenty minutes. Time to evacuate the station, back onto the (better shielded) Second Chance.

But Miri also had a hunch that she could get a signal to those who had disappeared, by sending a radio beam out during the energy pulse. She spent fifteen minutes of the time left reconfiguring a transmitter, leaving only moments left for everyone to get back to safety (Davies having to carry her back to the ship, as Peirce’s wheelchair would have been too slow.)

Heather rolled nicely on an Athletics check to get everyone back safely to the ship, so she got to describe the pulse and noted that the pulse seemed to contain a signal of its own, with voices and an extremely fuzzy video signal. It was unclear who exactly that was or what they were saying, just yet.

This brought us to the halfway point of the game, and we had the Mid-game huddle as InSpace suggested. This mostly was the captain briefing the crew on what was happening, then the PCs conferring with each other and with NPCs about what was going on. During this conference, it was noted that a few other crew members had disappeared as well, including the first mate Thusharsha and the communications officer Mercury.

During the midgame huddle, we discussed (out of character) if everyone was having fun and liked their characters so far. Amber was happy as Dr. Peirce, who couldn’t be abandoned at this point in the story. Ross decided that the captain wasn’t working out for him, so he elected to play a different crew member for the second half of the game. After some uncertainty, he decided to play Mercury, the communications officer who had vanished in the pulses. Very interesting. We had been having some trouble figuring out how to keep Davies a relevant character for the first half of the game, but Heather decided to stick with him.

following the midgame break, Joshua Davies started to look through his monastic order’s records to see if they had anything about disappearances or this star system or anything. Some research and a conversation with Michael, the ship’s gelatinous alien xeno-anthropologist/linguist, revealed that this star system had once been home to an offshoot sect that had disappeared a few centuries ago under mysterious circumstances. And the order had been set up to guard something that they called “The Ultimate Evil”. Ominous!

(The conversation also showed that Michael’s jelly people had a history of violence and conflict with Davies’s monastic order, so they don’t like each other. This wasn’t hugely important for this session, but definitely is something to be built upon in future games.)

I don’t recall if it was in here or a bit later that Davies and Michael unscrambled the transmission from the previous pulse. But they were able to identify that it was a distress call, warning that “the ultimate evil” had gotten out of their control.

Meanwhile, Mercury was waking up in a junkyard on an alien planet. He started to investigate, and was able to determine that he was in the same location in space, but several centuries previously. The planet seemed to be abandoned, so he started to salvage parts and build a transmitter to try to get a signal back to the ship in modern day. With a good roll, Mercury was able to cause the gas field to vibrate periodically, unleashing energy waves. These were the waves causing the disappearances. But Mercury was also able to encode a message into the pulses: their frequency formed a pattern that Miri would eventually be able to detect and understand, explaining what he had learned.

Davies went to warn Dr. Peirce about “the ultimate evil” just as Miri was decoding Mercury’s message. Hearing the phrase “The Ultimate Evil” made her realize that e=V*i^L, letting her graph out and predict the pattern of pulses better. And the pattern of pulses, if left to go on, would eventually increase in frequency and strength until they expanded to consume the universe. Not exactly what Davies was hoping to get from warning her, but it did mean that Peirce had a plan. Peirce was going to construct an energy beacon, drop it into the black hole during an energy pulse, and that would reverse the disappearances.

Back a few centuries beforehand, Mercury was working on perfecting his transmitter (he had a very good receiver, but a very poor transmitter) so that he could contact the Second Chance. But he was ambushed by several monks from Davies’s monastic order, who threw him in a prison cell, commandeered the transmitter for one distress call (the one decoded before) and then smashed it.

Talking to his captors, Mercury learned that they blamed him for the eventual destruction of the universe. He tried to suggest that it was al under control, and that the pulses simply were there so he could get a signal back to the future. The monks shook their heads sadly, and showed how the equations graphed out after the Second Chance’s point in time. Seeing how eventually he would eventually wipe out everything, Mercury was suitably taken aback momentarily. The equations governing the behavior of the energy pulses were themselves the ultimate evil, because someone misusing them could lead to the universe’s demise.

Back in the future, Dr. Perice recruited the ship’s engineer to build a big tachyon beacon as part of her plan to fix everything. This was going fine, until Davies got a message through his cybernetic implants. The monastic order used this method to send out urgent messages sometimes. This particular signal was especially painful and full of static (more Stress), because it was an emergency call from the past monks trying to prevent Peirce’s plan. They warned that anyone working on the Evil Equations could lead to the death of all life in the galaxy. So naturally, Davies went on a rampage and started destroying all of Miri’s work. Heather spent all available resources to destroy the device, including spending her Cool die (“It’s quite appropriate for you to lose your Cool when you go on a berserk rampage.”)

I was going to give Davies another Stress over all of this, but amber asked for it to go to Dr. Peirce, as her wheelchair got knocked over and her work got destroyed. It had been a few terrible days for Dr. Peirce, as she couldn’t sleep and all she could do was work on this device. The one that a crazy cybernetic janitor was now smashing to bits. Amber finally rolled well on a Stress die, though, and got a die of Cool out of it. Dr. Peirce was strangely calm, having finally come to understand what needed to be done. Instead of creating a beacon, they would simply drop the entire research base into the black hole. The station was already charged with enough tachyons that it would put out one final, giant pulse and undo this entire mess.

At this point, the team had enough Mission Dice to declare their investigation a success. Everyone had a good idea what was going on, and a plan to deal with it. The rest was basically wrap-up.

Davies was eventually restrained and brought back onto the Second Chance and the plan went ahead. Meanwhile, in the past, Mercury was brought before the head of the monastic sect. He started to explain everything that was going on and how it might be solved, as the energy pulse washed across everyone and Mercury disappeared.

In the ensuing massive tachyon field pulse, the black hole disappeared, the alien planet (and monastic order) restored to the present, and all the research scientists were alive on the planet. Mercury was careful to avoid the monks, though Davies conferred with them to help them get up to speed on what happened. Miri Peirce met with Dr. Cherenkov and determined that she now understood the behavior of tachyons better than he did. And the doctor was finally able to remove the quantum physics chip from Miri’s head and let her sleep for the first time in several days.

The crew were all able to buy off their Stress penalties and replenish their ship’s die pools, ending with slightly more than they started with. (The suggestion that I hand out about as many Stress dice as their Mission goal seemed like a good guideline.)

In the end, it seemed like everyone had fun and the game worked. We are supposed to play again on Sunday, even, which is a good sign that everyone enjoyed it.

Blackrazor

A few years ago, I ran my wife’s D&D character through the classic module White Plume Mountain. During the game, she recovered the infamous artifact Blackrazor, which came to factor heavily into the campaign. This was in 3.5, but when Wizards of the Coast had a contest updating Blackrazor to 4e, I wrote this up. Only recently did I find the file and make it into a readable PDF instead of an ugly Word doc.

Blackrazor

Cardenio’s Daughter

Cardenio, again

Cardenio’s Daughter, first draft

Cardenio’s Daughter, or “Follow the Lady”

Game Chef 2011

A game by Nick Wedig

“Mad let us grant him then. And now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause.
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.
Perpend.
I have a daughter”

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Perhaps this is the bottom line to mental illness: incomprehensible events occur; your life becomes a bin for hoax-like fluctuations of what used to be reality. And not only that–as if that weren’t enough–but you … ponder forever over these fluctuations in an effort to order them into a coherancy, when in fact the only sense they make is the sense you impose on them, out of necessity to restore everything into shapes and processes you can recognize. The first thing to depart in mental illness is the familiar. And what takes its place is bad news because not only can you not understand it, you also cannot communicate it to other people. The madman experiences something, but what it is or where it comes from he does not know.

-Philip K. Dick, Valis

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Cardenio has a problem. He seems to be slipping between realities. In one moment, he is Duke Cardenio, exiled to Spain after a disastrous civil war. In the next, he is aging literature professor Marcus Cardenio, dealing with his estranged daughter and a lost play of Shakespeare’s. And then just as suddenly, Cardenio flashes to a world where he is a foolish old rogue, hiding out in his daughter’s attic from the villainous Sheriff Vortigern. Though Cardenio remembers all three of these realities, no one else experiences these changes of perspective. Has Cardenio gone mad? Which one of the three is the true reality?

Setup

First, you need three to five players, including yourself. The roles in play will depend on how many players you have. If you have four or five players, one person will be dedicated to playing Cardenio himself. If you have five players, one person will play The Daughter consistently. If you have fewer players, then those roles will transfer from player to player.

You’ll also need a few cards from a standard playing card deck. You’ll need the Jack of Spades, the Jack of Clubs, the Queen of Hearts, the Queen of Diamonds, the King of Diamonds, the Two of Hearts, and a Joker. Separate out the remaining twelve spades in another pile.

Each player can choose their role, or the roles can be decided randomly. If you want to assign roles randomly, take a King, a Deuce, and a Joker from the deck and shuffle them. If you need, add the Jack of Spades and/or the Queen of Hearts. Deal out the cards, and turn them over. Whoever receives the King of Diamonds takes on The King role, the Two becomes The Deuce, and the Joker becomes The Fool. The holder of the Jack of Spades will play Cardenio, and the holder of the Queen will play The Daughter.

Ambition Players

The King, the Deuce and the Fool are called “Ambition Players”. These players will embody Cardenio’s unspoken desires. Periodically, they will speak out loud his internal thoughts, which even Cardenio’s player may not realize.

The King speaks for Cardenio’s Noble Ideals, which impel Cardenio to great, dramatic acts.
The Deuce voices Cardenio’s Mundane Desires, which impel Cardenio to small, personal acts.
The Fool plays his Terrible Flaw, which impels Cardenio to stupid, self-destructive acts.

Each ambition player will get a chance to customize the specific desires for which they advocate.

Realities

The three ambition players will also control one of the three realities that Cardenio experiences.

The reality that an Ambition controls is one where Cardenio lacks that specific desire. Ambition players can thus modify the world to highlight how this lack leads to Cardenio’s downfall. “Controlling the world” means describing setting, creating and roleplaying minor NPCs, and having final say on the details of the environment.

The King controls the world where Cardenio is a clever old rogue, hiding out from the authorities in his daughter Rowena’s house. Following a criminal caper gone wrong, Cardenio has come to his daughter Rowena’s house to hide out from Sheriff Vortigern. Cardenio the rogue lacks the Noble Ideal that the the King usually advocates.

The Deuce controls the world of Duke Cardenio, who is ruled by Grand Ambitions and Terrible Flaws. Duke Cardenio has been exiled to Spain, following a disastrous civil war in England. In the war, his daughter Rowena sided with Prince Vortigern, against Duke Cardenio.

The Fool controls the world of Marcus Cardenio, a modern literature professor who has found a lost play that may be Shakespeare’s. Professor Cardenio’s life is torn between large, abstract ideals and his petty desires. Cardenio has stolen a manuscript from Thomas Vortigern, his academic rival ans husband to Cardenio’s daughter Rowena. Cardenio believes the manuscript to be a lost play of Shakespeare’s, called “The Cardsharps, or Follow the Lady“.

The Daughter

The Daughter acts as dealer for the cards, though she need not be a fair dealer. The Daughter can deal cards out randomly if she wishes, but just as easily she can hand the cards out secretly according to her personal plans. She can also peek at anyone’s card at any time. She can even switch cards around, so long as the cardholder hasn’t offered a soliloquy for this scene.

In any scene where Rowena is present, the Daughter will roleplay for her, speak in her character, describe her actions, etc.

If you have five players, one person will play The Daughter throughout the game.

If you have fewer than five player, the role of The Daughter moves from player to player. In each scene, one of the ambition players will also act as the Daughter. You should have a token to identify The Daughter. The Queen of Diamonds from your deck of cards would work well as a token. At the end of each scene, the Daughter should give away the token to another player (not the player of Cardenio in the next scene). That player will act as the Daughter for the scene, then he or she will also give away the token, and so forth.

Creating Cardenio or “What A Piece of Work is Man”

Before you begin play, you need to define in more detail Cardenio and his situation(s).

If you have three players:

Each of you will take turns playing Cardenio.

Go around the table, taking turns asking questions. When it is your turn, ask another player a question about Cardenio and his situation. Good questions will push the story toward interesting avenues of exploration and reveal new aspects of the drama. Ideally, questions and answers make Cardenio’s story into one that interests you. This is also a good time to get detail on the desires, ideals, and flaws you will be speaking for.

When you ask a player a question about Cardenio, they get to answer in any way they like, so long as it doesn’t invalidate previously established information. Then they get to ask you a question in return, and you can establish new facts about Cardenio yourself.

Sidebar: Example questions

-Which side of the civil war was Duke Cardenio on?
-Does Professor Vortigern realize the value of the missing manuscript? Does Rowena?
-why is Rowena angry at Cardenio?
-why does Cardenio Shakespeare wrote the play?
-why did Rowena side with Vortigern in the war instead of with her father?
-what is the ancient feud between Cardenio and Vortigern?
-what was the criminal caper the rogueish Cardenio botched?
-what is Cardenio’s greatest regret?
-why is Rowena ashamed of her father?
-which other criminal compatriots are angry at rogue Cardenio?

If you have four or five players:

One player will play Cardenio throughout the game.

The process works the same, except all the questions are aimed at Cardenio. Take turns having the ambition players and the Daughter ask questions of Cardenio’s player. Every question is asked of Cardenio, and then Cardenio asks the questioner in return.

Once everyone has asked and been asked a question, then you just need to put any finishing touches on the situation. If any new NPCs were introduced, you should give them names and such.

After Cardenio’s life has been defined, you will begin regular play. Don’t worry if some stuff is still vague; you can define it in play or gloss over it.

Starting Scenes

Before the first scene, the Daughter will take three cards: the Jack of Clubs, the Jack of Spades and the Queen of Hearts. She will deal those cards out to the three ambition players, who will hold it for the scene. If playing with three players, everyone should keep their card face down, without looking at it. If you have four or more, the ambition players can look at the cards they were dealt.

The main body of the game consists of a series of twelve scenes. Each scene should only be about five to ten minutes. You can always return to a scene later if people want.

The first scene begins with the King player framing the scene. Thereafter, each scene will start with the person whose Cardenio card chose in the previous scene. E.g., if Cardenio chooses to listen to The Fool and give in to his Terrible Flaw, the next scene will be one set in the world of Professor Cardenio, which the Fool controls.

The framing player starts the scene by describing where it is set, who is present and what is happening at the beginning of play. Thereafter, everyone else can jump in, roleplaying Cardenio, Rowena and various minor characters. The player who controls the scene will also describe the world, create new NPCs and narrate in sudden twists of fate. The scene plays out however seems most appropriate to the players, until eventually Cardenio is faced with decisions. At this point, the others can offer Cardenio soliloquies.

Note: If you’re playing with three players, whichever player controls the world will also play Cardenio for that scene.

Soliloquies

At any point in a scene, the ambition players can offer Cardenio soliloquies. These are speeches that the ambition player speaks, but they represent Cardenio’s internal desires. Soliloquies are always spoken in first-person, as Cardenio’s own thoughts. By externalizing Cardenio’s interior monologue, we all learn about his internal state.

Once everyone has heard the soliloquy, the other ambitions can offer their own soliloquies as rebuttal if they wish. Cardenio’s player then gets to decide if that soliloquy is true or just a figment. If given several conflicting soliloquies, Cardenio can choose one or none to be true.

Eventually, though, Cardenio will accept one of the soliloquies as being true. Cardenio will then try to follow the ideas expressed in the speech, and will act to pursue that desire for the rest of the scene. At this point, the person who spoke the successful soliloquy reveals their card. The value of the card will determine how the scene plays out for Cardenio.

Sidebar: Interludes

The player controlling the scene/world doesn’t have an ambition to speak for. In the world of Duke Cardenio, the mundane desires of the other two Cardenios do not apply. Thus, the player controlling the world does not offer soliloquies. Instead, they offer interludes, which are speeches of the internal thoughts of NPCs or very brief scenes of action elsewhere that Cardenio is unaware of. If these are chosen as true, then the world acts upon Cardenio, instead of Cardenio choosing to follow one of his desires. This doesn’t end the scene or reveal a card like a soliloquy does, though.

Outcomes

If the revealed is the Jack of Clubs, then the scene works out poorly for Cardenio. Figure out how things can get worse, or how Cardenio can mess up whatever he was trying to do.

If the revealed card was the Queen of Hearts, then the scene ends well for Cardenio. Things turn out positively for him, possibly because of his choice and his actions, or perhaps because of blind luck.

If the revealed card is the Jack of Spades, then something weird happens. Cardenio is already questioning his sanity, and the Jack of Spades means that the unreality of that world escalate.

Surreal events, hallucinations, bleed over from one reality to the next, inconsistencies between established facts, false memories, etc. However this scene plays out from here, Cardenio is less certain of his sanity than before. It seems more and more like this reality is a dream. Do whatever you can to increase paranoia, uncertainty and mystery.

Ending a Scene

Once the outcome of the scene is determined, you play out the rest of the scene, armed with the knowledge of how it should turn out. After you have made the scene sufficiently good or bad or surreal, look for a good ending point for the scene. (You can always come back t a scene later, if it seems like there is more to do. It usually works better to go to a different scene then come back later rather than continue this scene.)

If the card revealed in the scene was a Jack, then the other players keep the cards that they may have. In the next scene, Cardenio’s choices will be more limited, since he’ll choose from one fewer cards. The Jack remains face up in front of the holding player, until the Queen comes out and the card are reshuffled.

If the card revealed was the Jack of Spades, then the person who controlled the world in that scene should put a (different) spade card face up in front of them. This means that that reality is more unreliable than before. If the card revealed was anything except the Jack of Spades, put one of the other spade cards face down in front of player whose world you played in.

If the revealed card was the Queen of Hearts, then the Daughter takes all three outcome cards back and deals them out again.

Ending the game

You reach the end of the game after each of the twelve non-Jack spade cards have been placed face up or face down in front of someone. At this point, you will have three final scenes, resolving the storyline in each world. Count how many spades are face up in front of each player. The player with the most will have a scene, that resolves their world’s plotlines, but also establishes that their world was a dream or a hallucination or a fantasy tale that exists within the next world. Then the player with the next most spade cards will host a similar scene: the plotlines for that reality conclude, and that reality is smashed apart as an illusion as well. Finally, whichever reality had the fewest spade cards in front of them is revealed as the true reality. Have a scene resolving that world’s plotlines, as well as Cardenio’s insanity.

What about ties?

The Daughter can decide what order you go in. If you tie for fewest cards, you should definitely try for an ambiguous, Twilight Zone style ending. Leave it a question which world is the real one and which is the dream. Or have the two realities blend together in unpredictable ways.

Option for a longer game:

If you’d like the game to go two or three sessions instead of one, then only put spade cards down face up when the Jack of Spades is revealed. When the Jack of Clubs or Queen are revealed, don’t do anything. Keep playing until all twelve spade cards are distributed. This will make the game go 24-36 scenes (if I understand my math right) instead of 12.

Customizing the game

It wouldn’t be hard to adapt the game to other purposes. In particular, you can easily take the initial situation for each reality and change the details. Maybe make one reality a wild science fiction epic, or a bleak dystopian future. Maybe Cardenio is king or fascist dictator following a brutal revolution. Just come up with a brief idea for the alternate reality, and let the question and answer phase flesh out the rest of the details when you play.

Final notes and thoughts

This roleplaying game/story game/whatever you wanna call it was made as part of the 2011 Game Chef roleplaying game design contest. Each year, a variety of game enthusiasts make roleplaying games based off of a random list of ingredients. This game was made using the theme of “William Shakespeare” and the ingredients “Daughter”, “Exile” and “Nature”. I’d explain how they apply, but I’m over the recommended word count already.

Cover art by Auntie P, brandichu123, Eivind K. Dovik, epSos.de, Kodak Agfa, Leo Reynolds, McD22, and Trondheim Byarkiv. All images found on Flickr.com and used under their respective Creative Commons licenses.

Sufficiently Advanced Technologies

For Amber’s 30th birthday, we ran a larp inspired by Doctor Who. Amber played the Doctor stand-in. Much chaos ensued.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology Preliminary GM Notes
Device Cheat Sheet
Name Badges
item cards
Ushas
Alan Smithee
Mr. Manciple
Dr. Kerensky
Dr. Kim Bread
Spelvin
General Lance Duggan
Cavis
“David Agnew”
Tara Samms
Lt. Plinger
Cyrian
Lady Braxiatel
Fangshi
Possessed – Clockmaker
Possessed – Grubber

Smithee’s door
Kerensky’s door
Manciple’s door

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