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What ROLE-PLAYING have you been doing?
Mechanically it’s not as freeform as either. The cards dictate what will happen, although Speak Your Truth gives a lot of flexibility to add more.
I should mention that the game gives a lot of safety tools. Potentially challenging topics are listed in each scenario’s rulebook. E.g. if you don’t want to deal with harm to animals, take out cards X, Y, and Z.
I was also glad to see the rulebook state that if you have to remove so many cards that you have eight or less in any category, then this isn’t the game for you.
The couple didn't show because they hosted a big birthday party the night before and stayed up all night. Which shouldn't have mattered for a 6 PM game, but that kind of partying can be exhausting once you hit your 40s. I was at their party, and it was decent, maybe 40 people there at the peak. I left at 1:30 PM while a couple of people were attempting to dance to Eurovision finalists. For some reason, a many of my goth friends are unable to leave a party before sunrise, even as they get older, even when the party naturally dies down by 2 or 3 AM. Anyway, the one player and I played Camp Grizzly instead.
*Players did a prologue adventure in 1921 with a likeable NPC, an African-American author of several non-fiction books about cults.
*In 1925, they were going to reunite with their NPC friend in New York City, as he needed help with a new investigation, but they found him murdered in his hotel room.
*The murder fit the profile of a serial killer, but there was already an African-American man sitting on death row for those crimes. This new murder should have exonerated him, but the racist police weren't ready to connect the dots.
*After much legwork, the player characters discover the existence of a cult that probably committed the murders, and was also probably connected to a few dozen missing persons in Harlem.
*The player characters raided the cult headquarters during a major ritual. Our heroes didn't have enough ammo to handle the crowd of cultists, so they fled.
*The player characters returned later, overcame some challenges, and looted some cult stuff, including a box containing various jewelry, lockets, and watches, some of which could likely be connected to various missing persons and/or murder victims.
The dilemma: the contents of that box might be sufficient evidence to exonerate the innocent man on death row, but it would require at least one of the player characters to tell the police how they obtained the box and also to testify against the proprietor of the property where the cult ritual was taking place.
My players agonized over this decision. If they did nothing, an innocent man would be executed soon. If they went to the police, it would likely delay or even derail their investigation into a global conspiracy behind the death of their friend. And the publicity might make them easy targets for cult reprisals. They even talked about having one player sacrifice their character by going to the police (and then starting a new character), but all four of them were already persons of interest in the unsolved homicide of their friend. So the rest of the group might need to leave town abruptly, even though they still had one major lead to investigate. One player wasn't present because he sprained his ankle last week, so the group actually called him during the session last night to get his input, and that speaker phone call lasted more than an hour. Finally, they decided to keep quiet. And bring the box to some friends of the man on death row, in hopes that they could get the stuff back to the families of the victims.
All three active characters are currently researching occult tomes in their downtime, but one player got obsessed with his tome and started clocking 16 hour days of research, at a possible cost in both health and sanity. He was already close to finished, so he only lost two points of sanity in those final days. For his effort, he lost a few more sanity points and failed to learn the only spell in the book. The spell allowed the caster to turn a corpse into a zombie but required the caster to take a chomp out of his own arm and spit some of that flesh into the corpse's mouth. The whole party then lost some enthusiasm for tomes and magic, which is ultimately good for the game because active investigation is usually more interesting than reading tomes.
This last session featured no combat, but the players enjoyed some interactions with NPCs and also gaining some new clues and leads to discuss. I enjoyed role-playing a greedy old woman, an uptight British police investigator, and an artist lost in dreams and drugs.
I have purchased some RPGs lately: Starforged (based on the apocalypse engine) and Thousand Year Old Vampire, which I found on sale, fortuitously. I also purchased the Atomic Robo game.
This is a horror investigation RPG, set in 2004. The premise is that all the PCs spent time as kids in the town of Deep Lake, New Mexico during the 80s. There was this weird public access TV station on channel 94, "TV Odyssey." PCs grow up and move away. Over time, they vaguely recall TV Odyssey and exactly how bizarre it was. They try searching for it, but apparently it vanished in 1994. And not just went off the air -- one day in 1994, the building just wasn't there anymore. They find a web forum where other people are discussing it. Joining the forum, they learn that no one who lives in Deep Lake remembers the station; if pressed then they all think it burned down in a fire. Some forum members have gone to Deep Lake, but the site of the station has no signs of a fire. The only evidence that the station ever existed are "Odyssey tapes," old VHS tapes rumored to still exist. Forum members who claim to have a tape or two report some very weird qualities about them -- attempts to copy them result in the copy only ever playing a blank blue screen. Same with digitizing them -- the MPG or other video format only ever plays a blank blue screen. And, even with an original, if you try to watch it during the day? Blank blue screen.
The PCs decide to rent a house in Deep Lake for the summer, and see if they can get to the bottom of it.
The dramatis personae are:
- Crystal, goth girl who works at Blockbuster.
- Matthew, wannabe journalist, current pizza delivery guy.
- Nathan, IT installation guy, wannabe filmmaker.
PCs have been spinning their wheels in Deep Lake for a few weeks. One day they wake up and find that someone has left an Odyssey tape on their front porch. No sign who did it. It's titled "Happy Jack 06 Duress Signal? Pure-White Pretext?". They pop it in the VCR player just to see if the rumors about daytime viewing are true -- yep, blank screen.
Knock on the door. Young man introduces himself as Casey Wilcox; he's heard that they are poking around Deep Lake, looking into weird stuff. He doesn't know anything about TV Odyssey, but there's something else they might be interested in. He had a friend whose entire family disappeared in 1994. One day they were living a normal life in town, the next day no one was there. No sign, no notes. Could they look into it?
PCs drive to the house, start poking around. House has no power but somehow the VCR is on, blinking 12:00. They poke around and find some odd things. The coffee table has a sequence of numbers carved into it. In the master bathroom, the pill bottles in the medicine cabinet are in perfect alphabetical order, and are all empty. There's photos of the son and daughter all over the house -- apparently very devoted parents -- but one single picture in the master bedroom has a third child who looks like a sibling. There is no other evidence of this child.
A neighbor notices activity in the abandoned house, calls the sheriff. The sheriff shows up, determines that the PCs are harmless. Tells them he'll look the other way as long as they don't cause trouble for him. But they need to move on for right now so that the busybody neighbor is mollified.
They go home, wait until nightfall, pop the tape in again. It's not a blank blue screen any longer. It's an episode of Happy Jack the Lumberjack and Friends. Happy Jack is a crude puppet with a flannel shirt and a plastic axe taped to his hand. He's trying to console a weeping human girl. In the background, inexplicably, are a series of meat hooks. The girl confesses that her parents don't love her anymore because she wouldn't eat her vegetables. Happy Jack is appalled, and simulates chopping another puppet, Sylvester the Squirrel, into pieces with his axe. "That's what you can do, kids!" says Happy Jack. The screen goes black, but just before the tape shuts off, there's an audio snippet of the girl speaking. "Eat your vegetables, or kill your parents," she whispers.
Systemwise this is a hack of Brindlewood Bay, which is based in PBTA but with a unique system for investigations. Unlike Call of Cthulhu or other traditional investigation games, there's no canonical answer to the mystery. A scenario is a double-sided printout, with lists of characters, locations, and clues. Then there's a central question, with a rating for the complexity of the mystery (4, 6, or 8). There's a roll the player can make when they're trying to investigate ("Meddling"); on a success they get a clue. Once the players have found clues equal to half the Complexity, they can try to solve the mystery. They have to theorize about what happened, incorporating as many clues as they can. Then they roll 2d6, minus the Complexity, plus the number of clues they successfully incorporate into their theory. If they get 7+, then their theory is correct and the mystery is solved.
There's also lots of opportunities to share the creative load while personalizing the game. E.g. the room description for the master bedroom is: "Teal and mauve decor with seaside motifs. Queen size bed with brass frame. The faint smell of Estee Lauder perfume. What here makes you think that Hugh and Cheri were focused more on their children than themselves?"". With the question being one that the GM poses to a player. (The one I asked said that the walls were covered with pictures of the kids.)
The character creation is really great -- each PC chooses a few things that "take them back," nostalgic touchpoints from their childhood. They can get a small benefit if they spend a scene reminiscing with another PC about that thing. There's a big list, but you can also make up your own. My players chose:
- Duck Tales (oo-ooo)
- Artax in the Swamp of Sadness
- The Konami Code
- Friday the 13th: The Series
- Jean-Claude Van Damme
(and a few more)
So far the game is fun. Low prep, great theme -- Candle Cove is the obvious touchpoint, but there's lots of other shoutouts to creepypasta, urban legends, and so on.
The overarching campaign frame is eventually discovering what happened to TV Odyssey, and confronting whatever caused it. Like the individual scenarios, there's no one answer. I'll have to make it up over the course of the campaign, but there's lots of guidance on how to do this, and how to incorporate the PCs' choices into making it seem inevitable and obvious.
To follow on with the discussion about safety tools from last month, we are using an online campaign keeper -- a fan-made google sheets document with tabs for just about everything. One tab is for safety tools. Went fine. A player choose to allow suicide-related content be vaguely described, but not explicitly. Another chose the same for harm to animals, and another for sexual assault. Totally painless and it's also a permission structure to push hard on other themes -- it's a horror game after all.
5/5, strongly recommended. Available on Drive-Thru for now, only in PDF. Kickstarter allegedly coming next year.
We start with the “Dawn Phase,” a short housekeeping phase where we award XP. XP is based on questions on the character sheets. One of them is fixed — “Did the Latchkeys solve a mystery?” — but they can choose two based on the player’s interest. They are things like “Did you share a good memory from your childhood?”, “Did you go out of your way to reconnect with Deep Lake?”, etc. For every question you answer “yes” to, you get an XP. Six XP gets you an advance — +1 to a stat, or a small special ability like the ability to introduce a fact about a scene.
We had actually done the Dawn Phase at the end of the last session, but I wanted to revisit it as a way to recap and to give the players another chance to change their XP questions if they wanted. There were a few changes, then we transitioned to the “Day Phase.”
The Day Phase is one of the main phases of the game, and most closely resembles traditional play. With one exception — at the beginning of the Day Phase, if there’s fewer than three active mysteries, the Keeper introduces a new one.
Built upon a mountain mining settlement just outside of town, Starlight Kingdom was supposed to be the destination that put Deep Lake on the map—at least that was the hope of Paul Greco, the eccentric philanthropist who founded the bizarre amusement park. Both a religious man and paranormal enthusiast, he believed that alien encounters were all divine visitations. He hoped, with the creation of this dazzling amusement park, to “inspire visitors with the glory of heaven on earth.” The scope of the park was ambitious, with millions supposedly poured into early construction from anonymous donors—but the park never opened. After reports of “internal disputes,” Starlight Kingdom was abruptly shut down and fenced off, just months before its planned opening. Rumors persisted about continued work on the park, but none proved fruitful, and Mr. Greco was never seen again. The promised Starlight Kingdom slowly crumbled over the years.
In recent weeks, strange lights have begun to appear within the park at night. Visible just past the highway, they pulse and swarm in odd colors and patterns. Residents of Deep Lake who have seen the lights all seem to recall visiting Starlight Kingdom years ago, even though the park never opened. “Maybe they finally fixed it up again,” they say. But you know this simply isn’t true. As children growing up in a small town, you were over the moon at the prospect of having your own amusement park just down the road, and devastated when it failed to open.
The PCs choose to leave the amusement park alone for now, and go back to the house on Escondido Street and attempt to solve the mystery of why the Rappaport family disappeared.
* Matthew Schroeder, rebel rich kid who wants to go into journalism instead of the boring family finance business.
* Crystal Oakes, emo girl, Blockbuster clerk, budding filmmaker.
* Nathan Fonteneau, IT guy, Triforce t-shirt.
Previously they’d investigated and found three clues:
* Many family photos, but one (and only one) showed a third child.
* A sequences of numbers carved into an end table in the living room.
* An immaculately-organized medicine cabinet, all bottles empty.
They drove over to the neighborhood in Matthew’s 1997 Saturn, parking a couple blocks away to avoid attracting the attention of the nosy HOA lady. Sneaking into the back yard, they see that the swimming pool is almost empty except for a slick of mucky water. Faded outdoor furniture surrounds the pool, box planters are overturned and there’s a croquet set on the lawn, abandoned mid-game.
Nathan starts sifting through the spilled potting soil while the others poke around the rest of the backyard. A croquet ball suddenly and silently starts floating upwards, then moves towards the back of Nathan’s head, accelerating dramatically! Crystal grabs a croquet mallet and manages to hit it out of midair just in time. It slams against the backyard fence with a resounding thwack. The groups warily exchanges glances and decides to go inside.
Matthew jimmies the lock on the sliding glass door and they enter the kitchen. There’s a door leading to the basement. Matthew notices something strange in the microwave — a book. It’s another clue:
* A copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There’s a name in child’s handwriting inside the front cover, “Elliot Rappaport.” Inside the back cover is a drawing of a crying eye. The book has clearly been heated in the microwave — the pages are warped.
Matthew and Crystal decide to check out the kids’ rooms while Nathan goes downstairs. Crystal goes into Abigail’s room. It’s a typical mid-90s girl’s room — pink everywhere, Power Ranger bedsheets, the weird strawberry scent that is infused into plastic toys. Under the bed there’s something strange:
* A photo album titled “Summer Camp ’93.” It’s completely empty inside except for the last page, which has several polaroids of empty hospital beds.
Matthew searches Elliot’s room. Ninja Turtle bedsheets, a poster of Bill Nye on the wall. Matthew remembers watching Bill Nye as a kid. He hears his name whispered from behind the closet door. Gingerly stepping towards it, he places his ear up against it to hear better. Silence, but the closet door is preternaturally cold. Matthew leaves to let the others know.
In the basement, Nathan finds an artificial Christmas tree and several stacks of UPS boxes. He looks through the boxes but doesn’t find anything — but he notices there’s something drawn in chalk on the floor beneath the boxes. He moves the boxes and sees:
* A hopscotch diagram, the “10” space has been replaced with a crying eye, the same one in the back of the book.
The door to the basement slams shut in a sudden gust of wind. Nathan pulls out his Motorola RAZR and starts snapping pictures, using the flash as a makeshift light. He gets an overwhelming sense of … something in the basement with him. Panicking, he moves quicker towards the foot of the stairs….
Back in the living room, Matthew sees a notepad by a phone. There’s nothing on the top page, but he tries the old trick of lightly shading over it.
* There’s a phone number with a name, “Father MacGregor.”
He calls Crystal and Nathan to the living room to show them what he found. Crystal comes in from the bedroom. Where’s Nathan? They last saw him in the kitchen. Matthew opens the door to the basement. He takes the first step onto the staircase when all the steak knives from the butcher block suddenly levitate and whip towards his back. There’s a flash of a dozen knives sinking hilt deep into him … but no, Crystal saves the day again by slamming the basement door shut just in time. The knives slam into the door, protruding through the other side but leaving Matthew unharmed.
* This was Matthew failing a roll to notice the knives and dying due to the wounds. His player decided to “turn a key,” which is a mechanic that lets you narrate something and then retroactively change a failure to a success. But there’s only so many keys you can check off on your character sheet; run out of keys and the character is dead, retired, or lost. Matthew remembered the first time he discovered TV Odyssey.
Crystal opens the door. She and Matthew look down the stairs. Nathan is sitting on the ground at their foot, rocking back and forth and compulsively pressing the camera button on his phone, though the battery died a while ago. Matthew coaxes Nathan up the stairs. Crystal and Nathan reminisce about watching Duck Tales as kids and Nathan slowly comes back to himself.
They decide that this is a good time to leave the house and return to their rental.
We start the “Dusk Phase,” an interstitial phase where there’s some mechanical housekeeping, and then the players decide what they want to do during the Night Phase. They can either watch an Odyssey tape or investigate a mystery. The characters haven’t found any other Odyssey tapes, so they decided to look into the amusement park.
But there’s one other thing they can do during the Dusk Phase, which is attempt to solve a mystery. The players talked out all the clues and formulated a theory of the case. They decided that the child who appeared in only one of the photos must have been a sibling who was possessed or disturbed or ill or … something. He was memory-holed by the family. They first tried to medicate him (the pill bottles) and then tried to institutionalize him (the photo album with the hospital beds). But he kept escaping and calling the house, from a series of random numbers (the numbers carved into the end table). When he showed up at the house, he kept drawing this weird symbol, which must have been some occult connection to a spirit or astral realm (the crying eyes). He was trying to either travel their, or bring something across, just like how there’s other worlds in fiction (the book). In desperation the family called an exorcist (the priest’s phone number) but the exorcism backfired — instead of banishing whatever was inside the son back across the other side, it banished the entire family back across the other side.
The PCs rolled to see if their theory was correct. They failed — but on the “Answer a Question” move, if all PCs turn a Key, they can change a failure into a success like the individual moves. They decided to do this, so their theory was correct.
We ended the session there. This week is the Night Phase and the creepy amusement park.