Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Awful Lights

This past weekend I was at Breakout Con, running The Awful Lights. This is an alpha edition of a wilderness/zombie survival paramilitary RPG, heavily inspired by Band of Blades by John LeBouef-Little and Stras Acimovic.

In the Awful Lights, it's eight or ten years after a zombie infection wiped the world away. Now, only scattered wilderness bands remain, living off the land as best they can. Life in the silent world is peaceful but difficult. Injuries, malnutrition, and chance encounters with the dead are slowly whittling down the few that remain. Most have made their peace with the idea that this may be the last generation of people.

One day, the camp radio crackles to life. An organization calling itself the Edmonton-Nevada Alliance says it has a plan, but it needs help.

Mechanically, this is most closely inspired by The Regiment ('modern' paramilitary PbtA) and Band of Blades (where I lifted the idea for the player-facing campaign roles). It also has my turn-taking mechanic that now seems to be really humming along nicely for the action sequences.

Tonally, I'm inspired by the frantic terror of zombie media like Black Summer and 28 Days Later, but that is contrasted with my fascination with what humanity's spiritual relationship would be with an empty world. What would it feel like to be the last people? What would you come to believe, or hope for? In the silence after society is gone, the unknown can take a big step closer. For this reason, there's also a dash of the strangeness of Lost, or Communion.

This is a very early version; it has four campaign role playbooks and a single mission character ('the survivor'). It works okay with fewer players, but taking more than one campaign role right off the bat is a bit of a cognitive lump to swallow. I do plan to add more mission playbooks!


  1. I'd love to hear about how this is run - with the Handler determining mission location and objectives during the session, is the GM left improvising? Are you meant to pre-build all the possible Sites, and then hammer a Handler-chosen objective into them?

    1. Yes, I just improvised; in that sense it works very much like Blades in the Dark. What I've found in play so far is that the obvious thing works just fine. If you get 'Bridge' and 'Environmental Records', which may not sound like it makes sense immediately, the records are probably in the trunk of a car, or perhaps there's a little building at the far side of the bridge. Or perhaps it's a dead drop and the records are literally in a plastic case on the underside of one of the bridge supports.

      It's not particularly clever or unique scenario design, but add to that one of the Threats, plus a few bumps and scrapes getting there in the first place and it seems to be enough.

      At Breakout Con, I ran two groups through three missions:

      The first group did one mission, which was getting Environmental Records from Dassen's Corner; I decided they were in the combination post office/general store. That was going very smoothly until a player invoked their Pessimist move, bringing in several dead (we're all still amazed that people choose to do that, it's a really interesting phenomenon) at just the wrong time. The Threat they had actually chosen was Law Scouts, so I decided a sniper was on overwatch over the area. I'd rolled randomly for his alertness (a trio of people walking into a sleepy village in the predawn light on a random day can be easily missed), but after the kerfuffle with the dead he was alert and managed to snipe one of them on the way out. Another player sacrificed their character to allow the others to escape; it was perfectly dramatic.

      The second group tried a low-threat mission to start, a zero-threat mission to clear a landing zone at the Outlook Bluffs, which I decided was like a provincial park. The group had a survivor with Vitamin A, so that led to some confusion trying to navigate at night with a follow-the-leader procession moving blindly. I then had them run into the escarpment, which made them think about how they were going to get up it (eventually they went the long way). Then at the top they just sawed down a bunch of trees, attracting a lone wandering infected with the noise. The struggle in the dark was interesting, a few picked up some Exposure and another some Harm while trying to run to help in the scuffle.

      All in all it was a satisfying, low-threat foray that did seem to hit the goal of making them feel vulnerable while it was happening, and accomplished afterwards.

      That group immediately pulled down a much harder mission, repairing an ENA radio repeater in Box Car 8883. I figured the train was holed up in a rail yard along with a few other train cars, and the group had picked a herd of dead as the Threat. The rail yard was super simple, just a dual track that fans out into a fenced-in area with five or so tracks, a handful of train cars, and a nearby industrial building. They'd also picked a Follower, which I decided picked up their tail in some light industrial built-up map square on the way.

      They noticed it when they stopped to rest in a lumber yard, which created some tense decision-making as it tried (and failed) to pick up their scent in the lumber yard, doubled back, then doubled back again, then eventually disappeared from view to return again in who knows how long.

      At the rail yard, I decided the herd was clustered right around the box car they wanted access to (perhaps drawn by the EM from the radio?). The group asked if there was some generator or other noisemaker, and I decided there was a yellow railroad speeder for track maintenance off to one side. The group split up to distract the herd; their plan worked but at the cost of the group being scattered and having to find their separate ways home.

      Anyways, the point of all this is that the ingredients do seem to combine, even if you just pick the most straight forward way of combining them.