The Desert of the Realby Ian Sokoliwski
The Desert of the Realby Ian Sokoliwski
The Desert of the Real
(with profound apologies to the makers of 'The Matrix', from whence that title was acquired)
Welcome to the twelfth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.
This particular instalment will deal with dealing with a long pause between games, due primarily to 'gamer conflicts', and how the improvisational approach can better assist the return to regular gaming.
Due to 'interpersonal relationship conflicts' (let's just say the kind that can occur in a small co-ed gaming group where some of the members are romantically involved), my ongoing Hunter: the Reckoning Chronicle was suspended for six months. At the end of that period, with all the players involved wanting to return to the game, I had to find a way to make the first session go as smoothly as possible, to anticipate and deal with any lingering tensions between the players, and ensure to the best of my ability that everybody would still want to come back for the next session after this first one.
As readers of this column will recall (in the instalment 'Dealing With the Bookkeeping'), the previous session had ended with the players (in-character) arguing about how to deal with their vampiric ally, Viv. While this had been entertaining (for all members of the group), it posed an additional difficulty. That is, since all the people involved in the game were wanting to get along and return to play, returning to an in-game argument seemed to be just asking for trouble.
So. About a month or so before this particular gaming session, I knew that everybody had dealt with their differences (and the problem that had instigated those differences in the first place), but that there was still the possibility for tension and disagreement. So, (among other things) I began to think about what would happen in the next game session, and about how much detail and planning I should put into the game.
I knew I had an unresolved plot line (the Ghouls that were hunting the PC's) that would have to be dealt with, as well as the situation with Viv. Beyond that, however, I was unsure as to what the particular plot of this session would end up being about.
Ultimately, I decided to continue on with the improvisational approach, rather than mapping out all possible strategies to deal with potential conflict in the players, mostly because I wanted the players themselves to come up with ideas on how to deal with their hunted status, rather than me attempting to force them along any particular path. I knew that, due to their informing the local Vampiric Court of the actions of the Ghouls in question, they did have unwitting allies that may or may not take care of the problem for them. I knew I didn't want those Vampires to solve all the problems of the group for them, as that would cheapen the gaming experience, and that perhaps a slightly different type of conflict would occur. Perhaps, not unlike some of the personal situations that the party had all gone through, some of the events of this game would be more about repercussions and consequences of previous actions...
So, after many months, I sat down with the players (Sara and Victoria) to pick up the game where we had left off, hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst.
*** After a sleepless night, the PC's (Daniella and Izzy) set out to find if the Ghouls they had been hunting had still been looking for them. After some investigations, they discover that the Ghouls had indeed gotten information about where Izzy lived from her boss (although he had a hard time remembering anything about them, or about the week or so that Izzy had missed of work - as far as he could recall, she had only been gone for a day or two), and that both Izzy's and Daniella's apartments had been trashed.
To be clearer - Daniella's apartment had been merely ransacked (and phone/address books stolen). Izzy's place had been completely destroyed. Furniture smashed, books torn apart, walls defaced. Even the plumbing fixtures had been pulled out, smashed, and bent up. The extent of the damage was so much that they decided to call the police (if only to have a police report to verify any claim Izzy could make to her insurance company - we are all trying to maintain the illusion of reality as much as possible in this game).
When the police eventually arrived, both Izzy and Daniella were happy to note that they were human. Unfortunately, the state of Izzy's apartment led them to believe the whole incident was gang or drug-related, and they ended up taking the two of them into custody.
So, both characters are handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police cruiser (the second time for this group), watching the arresting officers standing around in the snow as other police show up, when the players realize that their characters are armed (and that, for whatever reason, the police had failed to do a cursory weapons-check before putting them in the cruiser). Figuring they should be able to talk themselves out of this mess, provided they do not actually have any weapons on them, Daniella manages to get her cuffed hands out from behind her back and removes their weapons, stashing them under the front seats of the car. The tension is even more heightened when they realized that some of the police officers arriving to check out the scene are supernatural (Ghouls and cyborgs, they believe).
At the police station, they remain uncommunicative and a little indignant - so much so that Daniella ends up getting taken away for a strip search. However, ultimately, they are both released (as no evidence of gang or drug activity seemed to have been turned up at the apartment). Izzy is informed that her apartment will be taped off for some time, and that the remains of her belongings will be returned to her in a few weeks.
Now concerned about the missing address book from Daniella's apartment (and figuring that Daniella had been tracked down via information found in Izzy's apartment), they discover a few of Daniella's friends and acquaintances had wound up in the hospital in the past few days, all victims of various assaults (even her parents had been called about her, but, as they lived out of town, they had not been directly contacted yet).
Paying a visit to the Health Sciences Centre, they discover that, not only have these people been attacked for information, they bear subtle supernatural manipulations - they reason that perhaps this is the residue of some sort of mind-searching or mind-controlling ability, and that the attacks went beyond the simply physical.
They also discover that one of these people, an elderly professor from the University of Manitoba, is not as badly damaged as some of the others, and bears none of the taint - indeed, it would seem that the incident acted as a catalyst for his own Imbuing, and that he is now a Hunter as well.
I'll admit, I threw in that last bit just to lift the depressing nature of the story at that point - it doesn't make everything all right, but at least there is one more potential ally against these creatures out there.
However, it also appears (through the garbled recollections of some of the survivors, as well as other trauma patients who had similar 'taints', but had no connection to Izzy or Daniella) that there were two different groups of creatures on two different quests. Perhaps one group was targeting the other. It is thought, by the party, that perhaps one of the groups were some of those unwitting 'allies' the Vampire Court was sending out against the Ghouls.
Searching for local information on these sorts of interrogations on hunter.net, they discover that the camper Izzy had been working on back in the garage (the camper owned by these Ghouls), had been sighted abandoned in a parking lot out near what used to be Unicity Mall.
After obtaining some new weaponry from the arsenal in the Forks (at this point, there is hardly any weaponry left for them to choose from, and there is no way to reacquire the weapons they ditched in the police car), they investigate this camper. They come upon the remains of a bloodbath.
Almost all of the Ghouls that had not been accounted for are inside, dead (some in very gruesome ways), with one hidden in a small cupboard. Evidently, he had been Embraced, and then a stake had been driven through his heart to paralyze him.
Now, as the bulk of the game had been investigation, and reaction to events caused by prior actions, I had felt it was about time to introduce something that the players could fight. So, I created the situation where, for whatever reason, the agents of the Vampire Court had turned one lone surviving Ghoul into a Vampire and left him as a present. This, to my mind, would bring up several questions in the minds of the players (and the player characters), as to why the agents would do this, whether they knew that someone else was also hunting these Ghouls (remember, the Vampire Court had been told nothing about these Ghouls hunting anyone except lone straggler Vampires, and certainly not about the existance of the Imbued), and what the surviving Ghoul (now Vampire) could (or would) tell the PC's if the stake was removed from its heart.
Izzy and Daniella did both know a little bit about the nature of stakes through the heart of a Vampire, both through their earlier ally Joel, and from some entries on hunter.net. So, I thought this would make for a fun, dramatic scene where they could interrogate this monster as much as they wished, and then I would find the answers to those previous questions myself (as I was still very much in improvisational-mode, I had no idea why the Vampire agents would have done this in the first place).
Instead, however, they both decide that they are just better off destroying this Vampire/Ghoul, and putting as much of this entire debacle behind them as possible. So, Daniella backs off while Izzy blasts it in the head with a shotgun. The session itself ended with them standing in the falling snow, watching the camper burn.
Suffice it to say, their having gone with a more cathartic ending surprised me...and yet it should not really have. As the players were heavily into the emotional state of their characters, the frustration the characters would have felt made its way back into the actions (and decisions) of the players. While many GM's would no doubt think that they had made the 'wrong' decision by not investigating further, I ultimately decided that they had, indeed, made the best possible human decision.
Three or four game sessions (and several months) previous to this particular game, I had asked the players what types of stories they were interested in, and what types they wanted to steer clear of (or at least have less focus placed on). While they were both happy with how things were progressing, and the stories being told, they did want to stay away from games that were too Vampire-centric (this was just after their characters had appeared in front of the local Vampire Court). Basically, they were interested in the human drama they were engaged in, not in getting involved in Vampire Politics.
Several places during this game, I dropped hints alluding to other supernatural threats and occurrances (such as a plea for help on hunter.net during their discovery of the camper - the young Hunter they had seen in the earlier rave was asking for their help). This was both to give them the option of dealing with something other than Ghouls and Vampires for a bit, and also taking the focus away from a story that continued to be about repercussions of actions, and about how those around them were being made to suffer for who and what the player characters ended up becoming.
The players would have none of it, however. They were determined to see this particular storyline through to the end, to try and resolve and deal with the threats that the Ghouls had become. The more that they saw it as a personal story about them and those around them, the more determined they became in dealing with it.
Fortunately this reaction and determination seemed to also bring the players all closer together, helping to heal past real-world differences and smooth out the way for the future. I don't want to say that gaming is particularily helpful for many real-world problems, but this session was definitely one of many positive incidents happening at the time to help everyone get along better.
I'm very pleased to say that, as of this writing, all has been going very well. Enthusiasm for this game is currently at an all-time high, even with the acquisition of a new player into the mix.
But that is for another column...