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.

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