Time After Time

You know the Time Loop story? Where the protagonists are stuck repeating the same events over and over? You may remember it from Groundhog Day, Star Trek, or Dark Matter. It’s everywhere.

I wanted to run a time loop session for my Predation group, and make it fun. I’ve seen a bunch of these, but the one that really made me want to do this in a roleplaying game was Dark Matter’s All the Time in the World. Instead of focusing on one or two characters who knew they were time-looping, it started with one and added a character each loop until the whole gang was in on the secret. Perfect for a roleplaying group.

Predation-Cover

“I’m Going to Mess with Your Agency.”

For many games, messing with player agency is the worst thing a GM can do. So of course I wanted to do it.

I started out announcing I was going to do it before we got going. I did this to let them know this will be a different session and that I was going to do commit a terrible GM sin. 4 out of my 5 players were fine with this announcement. The 5th gave me a baleful stare. “This better be good.”

The Setup

I started with the newest edition to our gaming group, and told her she was gesturing wildly and talking nonsense, then told the heavy of the group “You can’t stand her raving so you hold her off the ground and clamp your hand over her mouth. Now you can hear the others decide what to do.”

As the rest of the group decided what to do about the strange sleeping aliens (think shape-shifting mind flayers who ride dinosaurs) and the shoggoth who was advancing, I sprung the first TPK. A secret door popped open, an arm came out holding a gun that shot a black hole into the chamber with the PCs. The black hole errupted with terrible damage, sucked the PCs to it and then let them fall down a giant hole and into the maws of a hungry shoggoth. Everyone dies.

Shoggoth

Click

I run the same scene again and this time let the new player go, telling her she’s been stuck in this loop and died over and over. “What do you do different this time?” I let her know she can attempt to convince one other PC the truth. I let the other players know they have no memory. My players are great, so those who have no memory ham it up, telling her to “calm down and take a chill pill.”

She convinces another PC, and they steal the black hole gun and throw the mind flayery creature to the shoggoth.

Then the way out gets blocked by a giant plug and the shoggoths eat everyone. TPK.

Click

I randomly choose another PC to remember. Now there are 3, and they know the secret door is about to open. Old squid head loses his black hole projector and the whole group runs out before the plug closes. The party sees strange transdimensional beings ripping apart the high tech lab they were in last session. Everyone shrugs and runs out and hears one of the strange creatures say “Ut oh.” Then everyone dies in a thermonuclear explosion as the fusion reactor gets torn up and goes boom.

Click

We start with the secret door, throw the squid-head to the shoggoth, run past the plug, and drive off the creatures ripping apart the reactor. In the jungle, there is an ambush by mind flayery creatures riding upgraded Utah raptors. TPK.

mind flayer on a giant croc
Not a Utah Raptor

Click

I had one more time loop ready to go, but reading the table I could see enough was enough. They used the black hole projector on the shoggoths and found a secret subway out of the area and I ended the loop. We had some more fun, but the time looping came to an end.

Takeaways

I asked the players if was fun or frustrating. “Both.”

“That was really fun! Frustrating to die again and again, sure. But the pace… was absolutely perfect. Great job with the distracting glimmer of hope that we might actually escape!

and

I thoroughly enjoyed it! It was almost a riddle we had to solve. Or do trial and error – as we did.”

As a GM I loved it. So many TPKs! 😉 I won’t use this again this campaign. Maybe in a time travel game like TimeWatch it might work multiple times, but in a normal campaign I think once and done is great.

Recipe for Adventure

Hey, game masters, ever wonder what the heck you’re going to run next game? Sometimes a little research can make it all come together. For what it’s worth, he’re how I made my last adventure.

Start with an Idea and an Internet Search

Throw your idea into a search engine and see what comes up. Or just jump right to Wikipedia and start your search there.

My idea: Nicolas Flamel, alchemist. NicholasflamelI knew he was a big name in alchemy and used in a number of fictional works (Harry Potter for one). Wikipeida tells me more.

I find that according to legend he A: Discovered the Philospher’s Stone and B: Found the secret to eternal life. What’s not to like about that?

There’s a bit about his gravestone and where he was buried in Paris. More research finds that the graveyards of Paris were all dug up and the bones of SIX MILLION PEOPLE put into catacombs, really old limestone mines that undermine the city of Paris.

Now, if you live in Paris, this is old news to you, but to me it’s the best thing ever. After inhaling the very great Wikipedia article on the Catacombs of Paris, I search for “Catacombs of Paris Movies” because why not? And I find As Above, So Below. I love movies, so I rent it (Amazon Prime) watch it, and take notes for the adventure.

  • Giant walls made of bones and skulls
  • Unlit, but still hot candles that show someone is down in the catacombs
  • Women in white robes and face paint singing
  • Crawling over bones
  • “To Get Out Go Down” said by an out of touch person that the characters knew years ago
  • Growing fear
  • Dead end except for brackish water that can be swum through to reach hidden chambers
  • The undecayed corpse of a crusader knight
  • Collapsing passages
  • Having to move, and the only way forward is also down
  • Entrances that vanish
  • Panic in the dark

And so on. I filled up every square centimeter of a page while watching. I would pause the movie to jot down a note. I used maybe 1/5 of my notes, but it was great to make all of them. The movie helped me improv the adventure in the catacombs.

as above so belowMy game isn’t set in the modern day like As Above, So Below was, but so much translated to my 1895 setting (play testing the Yellow King RPG). If I was running D&D or 13th Age or a Cthulhu game, almost all would still work. I’m not saying the movie is the best horror movie ever (there are serious flaws), but it is so damned stealable for great catacomb crawling adventures. Plus Perdita Weeks and the rest of the cast do a great job, and I found it watchable.

Watching movies as game prep!

Putting it Together

I used a player’s backstory (I think my sister is a werewolf) as the hook, and had the sister connected with an NPC, Pascal Saccard, who vanished into the catacombs after reading “The King in Yellow” and researching Nicolas Flamel.

1200px-DJJ_1_Catacombes_de_Paris
Not a movie prop, this is real.

I had a number of scenes straight from the movie, including having the players find Pascal in an unreachable space. I played him as remote and haunted. He would answer yes or no questions with a nod or head shake, then stare at the limestone wall. He told them to “go out you must go down.”

I needed Flamel in the catacombs, and hey, he “found eternal life,” so of course he’s a vampire.

I ran through the game system’s mental hazards and listed those I thought we’d hit: looking at / reading the King in Yellow, seeing things that can’t be like the passageway they just crawled out of vanishing without a trace, and so on. I looked up what I could do with a cave in, and made notes so I could find it in play.

Actual Play

In play, the cave-in was more fun because despite me making the roll harder for the people in the back, the one in the middle failed, so the freaked out person in the back crawled screaming over the middle PC, shoving his face down into the bones while the roof caved in.

Cave-ins,  underwater swimming in the dark, odd visions, and worse took a toll. By the time they confronted the crusader corpse, they were pretty depleted in fine horror movie fashion. The meeting with the vampiric Nicolas Flamel gave them the clue they needed for the next game. He doesn’t like the Yellow King any more than they do, so he advised they track down all the copies of the play and destroy them.

A good time was had by all.

Races in Numenera & the Cypher System

I love Numenera, but using a descriptor for your race bothers me. It keeps non-humans from having “regular” descriptors like charming, rugged, or lonely. And if they really want to lean into their race, they lose their choice of focus, like murders or masters insects. What can you do?

Numenera Dread Unicorn Games

Don’t use the Racial Descriptor

This is the “Doctor it hurts when I do this,” “Then stop,” solution and the one found in the Cypher System rulebook. You’re PC is a varjellen because you say they are, and you get to use any descriptor you want. You don’t get the varjellen abilities in the core book, you just use your descriptor powers.

I like this for Numenera if you make it optional, and you let your players use racial foci without the descriptor. Some players like to lean into their race.

For the Cypher System, it’s fine if it works for you, but if a player wants to really embody a race, I’ll have to look elsewhere.

Two Descriptors

I’ve heard Monte Cook and others say, “just use two descriptors for each player.” The idea is everyone gets two, and now you can be that lonely mutant you’ve always pined for. After all, real people have more than one adjective.

I like this simple change. I don’t think this makes PC’s too powerful. The descriptor does not scale with tier, so the worst effect would be a little more resilient 1st-tier PCs, not a bad thing at all.

Racial Flavors

You use flavors, from the Cypher System rulebook, to represent a race. This lets a player really lean into their golthiar character. A flavor lets the player choose to add a flavor ability, instead of a standard type ability. Just like type abilities, flavor abilities become available by tier. A player could choose to be a little more golthiarish, and a little bit less glaivish. Those are words.

The character can have access to regular descriptors and foci, yet still be cool because of their race. This allows the player to choose how much they lean into their race. One player might have one race flavor ability, the other three.

The downside is this is work. Unlike the other two solutions we talked about here, you need to come up with a few new abilities for each tier. You can always use type abilities from a variety of types.

I’ve seen a great example of using flavors for races for Cypher System fantasy in Megan Tolentino’s Fantasy Ancestries.

Slithik from The Sun Below adventures for Numenera; Dread Unicorn Games

I put in a racial descriptor and foci in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady. Maybe I’ll put in a racial flavor in The Sun Below: That’s How the Light Gets In. No promises, but I’m kind of excited to do one.

Piggybacking, Part I

The other night we dove deep into our penultimate session of the Dracula Dossier. An unseasonable blizzard raged around the PCs as they had to climb up a mountain and down a waterfall. It was one of those roleplaying scenes where half the party had the skills to move the story forward, and half did not. (Athletics and Outdoor Survival in this case.)

Dracula's Mill
Dracula’s Mill, from The Dracula Dossier

This kind of scene happens in any kind of roleplaying game, from d20 fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and 13th Age, to the Cypher System, to Call of Cthulhu. This is a problem with “niche protection,” where everyone has a different set of skills so that everyone can feel special and get their spotlight moments. It can also cause the adventure to stall. When a party tries to infiltrate, but someone is sure to fail their stealth roll–when everyone must impress to get information at a fancy dress ball, but someone is sure to fail a social roll–when the group must climb in a snowstorm, but the hacker and the crime boss are sure to fall to their deaths–what do you do?

(Sometimes letting the crime boss in heels fall off a cliff might be what you want. This post is about when you want everyone to make the climb, but still keep it interesting.)

What do movies and books do? Han Solo and Chewbacca take their queues from Princess Leia when dealing with big-shots. People trapped in Jurassic Park follow the lead of Dr. Grant, dinosaur expert. Sansa escapes from King’s Landing by following Littlefinger’s plan. Characters without the right skills let the experts lead, but don’t leave the scene.

You want the expert PCs get to shine for their skills without stoping the story because some PCs have holes in their character sheets. You let them piggyback.

Piggybacking

This game system (Night’s Black Agents) is a GUMSHOE game, and it comes with a piggybacking rule built in.

In GUMSHOE you can spend skill points to add to your d6 die roll. The expert does that, while everyone else spends 1 point. For every follower doesn’t have any points to spend, the difficulty of the roll the expert has to make is +2. If the expert succeeds, everyone succeeds.

So the expert rolls the big die, spends a bunch of resources (skill points in Night’s Black Agents), and the followers spend some resources for the privilege of tagging along. Great fun!

In our game, we had so many athletics rolls climbing in that blizzard that the spotlight passed between PCs who had tons of points in athletics. They got their spotlight moments, but they didn’t have to leave the hacker and the crime boss behind. They also spent pretty much every point of athletics the group had, and there will be no time to refresh before the next game, so they are sweating it. Perfect!

This works great in GUMSHOE, but what about other games? Let’s see if we can steal piggybacking.

Next time we’ll look at 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, 13th Age, the Cypher System, Call of Cthulhu, and see if we can come up with ways to piggyback in those systems. See Piggybacking, Part II.

 

 

Distractions, Obstacles, and Blowback

book 2 coverI backed the Unknown Armies 3rd edition kickstarter (of course), but after a quick glace at the PDFs (cool!) I got busy and put them away. Then the hardback books arrived.

While I can’t wait to play it, I don’t have to wait to steal from it. Hoist the jolly roger and prepare to plunder Distractions, Obstacles, and Blowback.

Any RPG can use them. I’m running a Dracula Dossier campaign right now, and uses for these concepts in our campaign to fight Dracula, blow stuff up, and make the world safe for Malbec wineries just jumped out at me. “Use me now!” they said.

In between sessions the GM gets to scheme ways to thwart the player’s plans. You can put them on note cards, and once the game starts, you have things to throw at your players. In this way they are similar to spotlight cards, only meaner.

Distractions

Distractions are aimed at a specific PC. They aim to pull the PC away from the main plot (and the group!) and into a sub-plot that ties in with what the character values. Background information is great fodder for distractions.

For example, a druid in a standard fantasy RPG is a protector of nature. You know the party is planning on raiding the Dread Tower to stop the local Necromancer from raising an undead army. But on the way, a sacred grove is under attack by woodcutters. A forest spirit calls out for help.

So what does the druid do? Leave the party? Convince the party to save the sacred grove, even if it means the Dread Tower will be that much harder? Leave the grove to die in order to fight a greater threat? Any choice is good, as it deepens the character. And any choice will lead to blowback.

I wouldn’t use a distraction if it was likely to make the campaign fail or lose the fun-factor. In this example, druids aren’t your undead fighting specialists, a delayed assault on the Dread Tower will be harder, but not impossible, and the destruction of a sacred grove is likely to prey on the druid’s conscience but not deliver a fatal wound to the party.

Have a distraction or three ready for each PC. You don’t have to use them, they’ll be good in a future session.

Obstacles

Dread Unicorn Games; The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady; Numenera adventureObstacles are simpler than distractions. The party is trying to do something. Some other group (or groups) want to stop them. So they send people or things to do just that. Important places have guards. Troublemakers attract unfriendly attention. Obstacles are your standard RPG encounters. You just want to have a few on hand and ready to go.

A dungeon crawl has it’s traps and dungeon denizens. A Night’s Black Agents game has it’s vampyramid. A thieves’ guild campaign has security and rivals. A political campaign has factions and dirty tricks. A high school amateur detective gang has cliques and shady characters.

You’ve got this. A few extra obstacles on hand in case you need them is a good idea.

Blowback

Blowback is the consequence of the characters’ previous actions. It can work as a distraction or an obstacle, but it’s a result of what the PCs have already been up to.

If the druid let the sacred grove die to go fight undead, they could find themselves haunted by undead spirits of the grove. You could foreshadow this for a number of session, first with bad dreams, then sightings in the distance, and finally a throw-down.

If the PCs bombed the house to get the vampire, who owned the house? Who was there during the bombing? Now a Renfield backed with a pack of ghouls is on their trail.

As the campaign goes on, more and more of the action can come from blowbacks. Just don’t overdo so much that the players feel all their actions turn the world to ashes. Let some of their victories remain shining victories, while at the same time show them what they do matters.