Monday 1 April 2024

Improvised Awful Lights Missions

Asking about The Awful Lights, a commenter asks: 

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?

Yes, I just improvised; in that sense it works very much like Blades in the Dark when the GM works out a score. 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:

Group One, Mission 1

ENA Mission: Environmental Records, Firth Post Office, Law Scouts, 3-Supply of Survival Gear

The first group did one mission, which was getting Environmental Records from the Firth Post Office; I decided that the store had been looted, but the records were an envelope in the post office boxes, and the payoff was three large parcels of preserved food for a nearby scout camp.

Poking into abandoned buildings seemed to genuinely unnerve the PCs, which was great. Other than bad vibes it was smooth sailing.. until a player invoked their Pessimist move. (We're all still amazed at this, it was awesome but very against the chances of mission success!) The arrival of three infected turned the slow looting into a mad scramble, dropping unspent gear points ("Can I do that?") to lighten the load to haul ass as quickly as possible.

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.

Group Two, Mission 1

ENA Mission: Clear the LZ, Outlook Bluffs, No Threats, Fresh Clothing

The second group tried a low-threat mission to start, a zero-threat mission to clear a landing zone at the Outlook Bluffs. I had recently been to several provincial parks along the Niagara escarpment, so that was my mental picture: winding gravel trails along the top of a clifftop forest, little tourist maps, a couple of parking lots and picnic tables.

This mission was interesting because half the work was actually getting there. Based on the map the Watch player had drawn, it seemed likely to me that the players were at the bottom of the escarpment and would have to find a way up.

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. Confronting the escarpment, the players briefly flirted with the idea of climbing it, but then sensibly decided to take the long way around. At the top they found the LZ easily enough at the labelled 'outlook'. They got to work sawing down saplings to turn the picnic area into a helicopter landing spot.

I decided the noise they were making would attract a lone, wandering infected. This led to a confusing and desperate fight in the dark. The team worked well together to overcome it, but a few picked up some Exposure from using knives and hatches, 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.

Group Two, Mission 2

ENA Mission: Repair the ENA Radio, Box Car 8883, Dead Herd + Dead Follower, Battered Reservist APC

That group immediately pulled down a 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.

* * *

In conclusion, improvising these missions isn't nearly as complicated as trying to make an interesting dungeon up on the fly. Simple ingredients used in fairly obvious ways do seem to have the desired effect when they all stack together. 

Sunday 31 March 2024

Awful Lights Mission Team Playbooks

Here's an updated version of The Awful Lights, now with a set of playbooks for the mission team members. There are five:

A Survivor - this playbook is meant to represent all survivors without a specialty. They're starting characters for some players in larger groups, and this playbook is a replacement character option if any of the specialists gets killed in the field.

The survivor's advancement options are all about expressing their reaction to the situation they're, whether the dangers of the field or the rest of the mission team. Survivors advance quickly, and on their fourth advancement can pick a specialist playbook as a new path. (In this respect they're like the non-specialist Soldier playbooks in Band of Blades.)

The Scout is the mission team's pathfinder and forward observer. They've lived outside of camp longer than anyone else, and have a knack for finding ways into difficult-to-approach sites.

The Theorist thinks they know what's really going on—at least, that's what they keep telling everybody. Their unlikely plan saves the day, unless it gets everyone killed first.

The Hunter is the team's most skilled shot. You can trust them to get the group out of a tight spot, as long as they're actually there when you need them.

The Shepherd keeps their eye on the group as a whole—somebody has to. When things go wrong (and they're going to go wrong) who will be there to hold it back together? The Shepherd, that's who.

* * *

As well as mission character playbooks, I've also added a set of so-called missing time specials. Once the characters are unfortunate (or fortunate!) enough to run into the Lights, they start accumulating missing time, a phenomenon that distorts causality.

The missing time specials reflect this: characters that experience missing time can select them as advancement options. They're powerful, but all carry a significant cost to use them. Once you max out your missing time, you're never seen again.

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!

Friday 19 January 2024

The Allsoul's Fire

Unbenownst to the bards, their music and tales are no mere diversion, but the carrier signal of a great mind that spans all of humanity. Deep thoughts live in the delicate web of syllables and poems that join us.

I've heard it said that we never learned to sing. We sang from the beginning, maybe before. It was speech we found later. In this first song, we were all one. Not people carrying out the will of a great Other, but each a part of the allsoul, indistinguishable from it.

Speech came later, a fracturing of the song into tiny pieces. Dividing us. With words we say, "Give me your axe, and you may sit by my fire." In the first songs there is only the wordless joy for hewing wood, for the warmth of fire.

It's true that bards' tales are full of words, stories of people and deeds and their axes and whatnot. Still, the deeper song is there. The thread of profound, shared truth is in the sounds. The words are mere beads strung upon it.

The mind of the allsoul roils and boils, a cauldron of feelings. It's full of the screams of birth, gasps of pain, dismay of starvation, cries of ecstacy, of memory and longing. All of these wordless sounds, whenever they are shared, are part of its vast ruminations.

If the allsoul is everpresent and encompassing, it is also out of our reach. Words can't find it, and it never speaks. No shrine is built to it. It gives no visions, sends no dreams, imposes no quests, gives no gifts, and asks nothing.

But it is at war.

* * *

At the edges of the allsoul, the song thins. There you can hear the howling of the gods.

Lesser beings, the gods live in the middle scale. They are greater than any individual, but much smaller than the allsoul's vast union. Jealous of their strange cousin, they gnaw at it.

Gods have many tricks to unweave the allsoul and claim people for themselves. New songs, new feelings, new bonds. Receive my vision. Let prayers to me fill your mind. Become great! Lead your people. Work this magic. Build my shrine, my temple. My holy city.

Disavow fear, or love! Pray for the end of hewing, for a realm with no birth or dying, no eating or rutting. Free from hunger, unhurt and unwarmed by flames. Apart. Be my vessel, my champion, my conqueror. Enact my will upon the world, upon yourselves. Become part of me.

The gods are fierce and greedy, and each rises for a while. The allsoul moves to loosen each grip, to reclaim and heal itself. Its plans are so slow that they seem like nothing at all, the workings of time.

But in time the temples fall, and grass covers the shrines. Nearby, people are gathering wood for a fire, humming. If it was once a prayer, no one remembers the words. Wizards or priests with bulging eyes and red faces shout, "We're losing the old ways!"

A captain with a stick chases a group who are sleeping in a meadow. "Think of your duty!" They scream and run away, terrified.

After, when he is gone, they gather around a fire. They sit close together, arm in arm for warmth. The struggle is over.