Friday, October 19, 2012

Episode 3: Apocrypha

When running games more or less set on Earth I really enjoy when searches for inspiration or direction turn into collection missions. It's like planetary cherry picking, I'll take this and this, include this and this, get rid of that, and throw in some of this. Best of all, the history's built right in... and is often stranger than anything that might just get imagined up.

Crowland Abbey
In the case of my Engel game, I knew I wanted to do something with a floating villagesince those are a thing in Engel. The description in the Engel setting explains that many are from the British Isles, which suffered devastating flooding but was able to save several communities by making them raft villages (link: floating village), but that these communities are sometimes dislodged and forced out to sea by the powerful season hurricanes that wash over the islands every year. Since this would be a British community, I decided to go to Google maps and see if I could find a legitimate name for my wayward community. Crowland was too perfect, too ominous, to pass up. Map view turned to Wikipedia view and what's the first thing that appears but the distinctive, partially ruined abbey at the town's center, Crowland Abbey. What a fantastic looking place, with the ruin of its former nave arching off like a huge buttress and a great old graveyard. I was sold at this point, but then it kept getting better, with a saint beset by demons (Saint Guthlac) and an abbot murdered at the altar by vikings (not to mention his wayward skull). Smitten, my floating village turned into a floating abbey, figuring that if a community was going to save any part of itself, its ancient communal heart would be near the top.

Badge of the HMS Vengeance
Now we've got a setting for my creepy bug-cultist castaways, but I still wanted some way for them to be more in control of their seaborne sanctuary. A boat would be too obvious, but a submarine. So I looked into that and... oh... oh hoho England has nuclear submarines. Cue the diabolical laughter. It's one things for bug cultists to stictch wings on a guy and be disappointed when they don't work, but anything's possible through the power of radiation! Just ask Spider Man. In fact, what if that was the gimmick? What if the lead cultist finds this trove of pre-flood secrets and isn't able to understand most of them except those that are most elaborately illustrated, the ones that distinctly showagain and again—a man bitten by a radioactive spider and given remarkable powers. There aren't comics in Engel's dark future, so how would she know these weren't reports or instruction manuals from a time know for its incredible godless science? So she hops to, and through the efforts of her cult is able to get a pre-flood submarine up and running (handwave, handwave). Again, Wikipedia to the rescue, bringing up the HMS Vengeance, a Vanguard-class submarine of the Royal Navy. Again, perfect name, its obviously martial badge made a great emblem for these creepy cultists, and its nuclear engine sets the stage for all manner of sinister experiments.

Game sketches from the white board
History and research really did the work for me this time around as far as setting went, and having just re-watched The Relic and Mimic already had me in a mood for body horror, so the rest came pretty easily. I largely prepared for this game like I would a Pathfinder game, detailing the main areas, defining the major characters, sketching out a little map, putting together my soundtrack, and throwing in some other nuances I might need (selections from the top 100 British names, for example). I also threw in some of the suggestions presented in the rulebook for Dread (Why don't you own this yet?!), tracking out the general acts and what should occur during them. I'd never included that in a game I've run, so the attempt is a bit weak and it might be obvious that I didn't build the adventure with them in mind. It worked out well enough, but there's really only two acts: Exploring and Shit Going Bad. Having played through now, I realize I did too much work and constructed this far too much like a Pathfinder RPG dungeon crawl. Dread being a much more narrative game, the borders between rooms and encounters don't need to be so strictly defined, and while playing this I found parts I'd intended to be discrete scenes flowing into one another. It's a much more cinematic style of storytelling and I REALLY dig it for horror games like this.

Engel page from my workbook
Now that you've heard about my prep work for the adventure itself, the tools and handouts I used, the characters, and actually playing the game, here's all my notes. Below is the Word.doc with all of my room by room notes, while the picture from my workbook here has my sketches of the abbey, sub, and the other notes I scribbled down researching this and during the game. I don't promise polish in either of these documents, but if you're interested or want to run something similar to this (or just want a simple map of an abbey riding a sub), you're welcome to use them in your own home game. If you do use them and you and your players like it, let your players know about the site and be sure to post about your experiences on this page, I'd love to hear all about it!

Wes's Dread Engel notes and adventure (free download!): DreadEngel.doc

Sketch by Liz Courts
Alright! That brings an unexpectedly full week of Dread and Engel to a close. I will definitely be using the Engel setting again and I expect you'll be reading lots more about Dread on this page in the future. Huge thanks to my awesome players Judy Bauer, Liz Courts, Cosmo Fallacy, and James Sutter for such a fantastic game. Also a big thanks to the residents of Crowland, Lincolnshire, parishioners and clergy of Crowland Abbey, and the crew of the HMS Vengeance for letting me borrow the inspirational tales of their home, sanctuary, and vessel for my night of storytelling. Despite this game's grim theme, I hope my personal respect, appreciation, and fascination show through the dark fantasy trappings.

As for what's next... I'm really not sure, I was so focused on doing this mash-up that I haven't put much thought into it yet. I should probably get those Mass Effect slackers back in the saddle since they wanted a third session, so once that's wrapped I'll figure out what's up and who's in for episode four! Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Episode 3: A Voice Raised to Heaven

The world of Feder & Schwert’s Engel is totally cool, there’s no doubting that. Knowing what I know now, though, I probably wouldn’t have used it as the setting of my first Dread game. The preamble about the campaign world was just too long. If the players had already been familiar, that would have been one thing, but as it was about a fifth of our game time was spent bringing the players up to speed on aspects of a rich setting that had little to do with the plot of the evening’s adventure. “Your angels in a post-apocalyptic future dominated by the Future Vatican” would have probably been enough. The exposition on the Dreamseed (the giant infernal bug-demons of the world) was useful, as those certainly made an appearance, but the hierarchy of the church, the role of the Engel, the history of the world, less so. It’s all vibrant and fascinating, so I don’t feel like it was a waste of time and the players were definitely interested—and were receptive sponges, as quite a few bits of lore and neo-religious dogma crept in throughout the night—but overall, had I to do it all again, I would streamline things.

That said, if we play this setting again, these players are totally primed, so it’s not like it was a waste.

As for Dread, I’ve been excited to play since I got the book a month ago and it did not disappoint. In fact, I’ve been gushing about it since we’ve played. Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. The way the Jenga-tower feeds into the players’ growing apprehension is easily the strongest synthesis of resolution mechanic and mood I’ve ever seen. Breathlessness, that’s this game’s effect, infecting each player with a totally appropriate dread regarding every extraordinary action. The players started around the table, but by the end, if they could have been closer to the walls, and thus farther from the tower, they would have been. Simple, elegant, brilliant—I might have a new favorite storytelling game.

I was too easy on them, though. First off, the janky Jenga knock-off I got, while aesthetically perfect, seems far less structurally sound than a normal Jenga tower—just look at those uneven bones! So I went easy on them as far as calling for pulls, as I didn’t want the tower to topple after like three attempts. Turns out, though, the tower was a little sketchy, but just fine, and over the entire night it only tumbled once—boy did it, but we’ll get to that. Also, with the engel being superhuman, the threshold of what’s extraordinary is already increased. So feats of strength, using the name of god to shout down a shack, flying, they’re pretty commonplace for engel, so I didn’t require pulls for a lot of stuff. That made a significant portion of the initial exploration pretty safe—though trying to empathically read an item formerly possessed by someone surgically violated by insectile grafts certainly did call for a pull. If the players had been normal humans, sure I would have certainly changed the danger level of the game, but I still think there would have been significantly more pulls. The whole thing worked and it was cool and, especially by the end, very creepy, but without the shield of divine powers, the players would have been much more freaked out. Something I’ll certainly be keeping in mind for next time.

As for setting the mood, I was delighted to finally get to use the band In the Nursery’s Engel soundtrack in a game. For a setting as dark as Engel, the soundtrack is strangely hopeful. Maybe I’m viewing the whole setting through a more cynical lens than is intended and Engel is actually meant to be a world about hope and faith overcoming evil… but I really don’t think that’s the case. But, for the intro, the epilogue, and another spot or two, it worked great. For the really creepy stuff, I defaulted to an old favorite soundtrack, the score to Silicon Knight’s Eternal Darkness. Subtle and ominous, a few select tracks were on in the background throughout most of the night. For the big dramatic fight at the end, a newer take on an old standby rose to the challenge, Castlevania: Lord of Shadows. I haven’t used this specific Castlevania soundtrack terribly much—I’m mostly a Symphony of the Night kinda guy—but certainly will again. Here’s my whole soundtrack for the evening.

Prelude: Engel, Angelorium
Exploring the Exterior: Engel, Pandoramicum
Exploring Crowland: Eternal Darkness, Black Rose
Ashby & Library: Eternal Darkness, A Journey into Darkness
Exploring the Vengeance: Eternal Darkness, The Somme
Congregation: Eternal Darkness, Gateway to Destiny
Dreamseed: Castlevania, Lord of Shadows, Carmilla

Easily the high point of the game was the climax, and through no direct decision of mine—which was the best part. Judy’s character Israfel had spent a good portion of the evening watching the team’s back, largely because they’d come to fear attack by the Dreamseed. As her engel’s power was the voice of God, the ability to damage creatures and substances with the power of her voice, she was serving as artillery. So, when Rogziel and Zophiel got attacked (and Pahadron was euthanizing a 10-year-old; why yes, she does get younger every time I mention it), she needed a moment to get to the scene. By the time she did, though, a gigantic, irradiated damselfly had burst loose and was stampeding through the claustrophobic confines of the boat’s bowels. Entering the area, she was the first to act, and chose to use her voice on the demonic creature. She surely could, I explained, but it’s huge, armored, and angry, so her words probably wouldn’t hurt it much. She could, however, wound it by making a pull. She might more than wound it, though, by making two pulls.

She opted for two and cautiously scooted toward the wobbling tower. Cosmo, being absolutely in the moment, caught what unfolded. You can see me in the background using my iPhone to slowly crank up the music (yes, I’m still loving my Bose Soundlink speaker, which I gushed about in my last Mass Effect write-up).

Though you can probably infer, THAT means she dies, but still dramatically succeeded, sacrificing herself to defeat the beast and save her friends from a drawn out and surely lethal battle. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Her devastating hosannas and hallelujahs ripped into the thing as it tore her apart, but her death cries ultimately blew away that living heresy.

And that’s where we ended it. There wasn't any point to explaining how the characters got out, or reported home, or whatever. The climax was so strong and so satisfying I ended it right there, with no question that the engel had won, despite the tragic cost. Phew! What a finale.

Tomorrow I’ll post all my notes from the game if anyone wants to do something similar to this, or just wants a sketch of a cathedral riding a submarine. I’ll also talk a bit about how much of this was fiction, and how much came straight from the real world… which might be more than you’d think.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Episode 3: Dread Engels

That. Was. Totally. Awesome.

If you don't own Dread, go buy Dread.

We played last night, using the setting of the Engel RPG, as I discussed in my previous post. Everyone filled out their Introductory Inquisitions--the little handwritten survey journals I put together for the game--and after an overview of the game, the setting, and reconciling a few character powers, we hopped right into it.
This time around, my fantastic cast consisted of:

Rogziel (Liz Courts)
* Who has skin like stars.
* Who shines like the sun.
* Who debates with fists.
* Who bears the Eye of Iblis. (Whatever THAT meant!)
* Who stands in front.

Zophiel (James Sutter)
* Who knows the thoughts of mortals.
* Who got a face full of bug swarm.
* Who speak English.
* Who carries old women into danger.
* Who smites traitors.

Pahadron (Cosmo Fallacy) 
* Who knows the fears of men.
* Who perfected fly-by soul searching.
* Who swings a mean yo-yo.
* Who gets bored on guard duty.
* Who isn't afraid to choke out a 12-year-old.

Israfel (Judy Bauer)
* Who fears no belfry.
* Who knows the deceits of the Sons of Albion.
* Who has her own sneaky methods.
* Who shouts down both buildings and bugs.
* Who sacrificed herself to save the day!

As for what got us these characters, Dread uses a survey method of character generation. These were the Engel themed ones the players got in their survey journals.
Introductory Inquisition
The Urielites are the eyes of the Angelitic church and aloof guardians over His flock. Despite this, what part of human life do you secretly wish you could share in?

If you could live outside the Urielite Himmel at Mont Salvage, where would you live?

Why are you the first person your brethren turn to in a crisis?

How are you better than a human?

What weapon or instrument do you practice daily?

Despite it being heresy to possess such an item, what is the one piece of pre-Flood technology you always keep on your person? Why?

Although greed, lust, and envy are damnable sins, what do you constantly crave?

Last week you skipped mass. Why?

When was the last time you bled? Why?

Your potestates, the tattoo-like manifestation of His power in you, grant you a remarkable ability. What is it?

You are blessed to share a name with a legendary engel who you seek to emulate. What is your name?

Oh, and I found appropriately themed cider.

So that's the gist on the characters. Tomorrow I'll get into the details of the game itself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Episode 3: Dread Engel, Still of the Flesh

With Episode 3: Mass Effect going into overtime, I've decided not to wait to try out something totally different. Having heard fantastic things about the Dread RPG, I ordered that recently and was totally impressed. I expected it to just be storytelling with Jenga. It is not. The rulebook might use pulls from a Jenga tower as its core resolution mechanic, but its survey based character generation method, the depth in which it defines (and offers) various types of horror experiences, and the invasive questions running endlessly along the bottom are more than just perfect at creating mood, they're super cool. I was cackling the majority of the time I was reading its elegantly minimalistic 168 pages.

I've also always wanted to run a game in the world of Feder & Schwert's Engel RPG and finally put my Sword & Sorcery Studios' translation of the German originals to use. I've only owned my Engel books for a decade, so now that the new book smell is thoroughly worn off, they should be good to use.

Tonight we're playing Dread Engel*. I've got a few props (as per usual), a great soundtrack planned (including In the Nursery's Engel CD), an appropriately themed (French?) "Jenga" tower, and little Engel character survey journals. I have also informed multiple players that survival is not to be anticipated.

I've included a few images of what I'm prepared with, but the game starts in moments so I have to run. Once it'sover I'll post more details about the players and the scenario I put together if you're looking for your own Dread Engel story to play through. More to follow!

* This band name free on a first come, first served basis.