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Chorus d20

Started by Ben Lehman, December 04, 2003, 10:27:00 PM

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Ben Lehman

Hi all--

 This is a post about a 1-shot game I ran recently for two of my gaming friends from Providence (both part of Brown's Gaming group, but neither -- oddly -- enrolled) during Thanksgiving Break when I was back visiting.  It is also a chance to show off some of my house setting, which I don't get to do here because it isn't designed for production or sale.
 Forgive any rambling or gaps of memory -- I don't tend to take notes while I game.

 The two players are good friends of mine, both of whom I met through gaming, for the purpose of gaming, but now have much more comprehensive friendships with.
 This is one of a long series of one shots in this particular setting.  One of the players has played a continuous character through these games, but not in any way that could seriously be considered "campaign" play.
 I had originally intended to run this game using Riddle of Steel -- which would have made a very different experience -- but rounding up the players was more difficult than anticipated and the weight of teaching a new system on top of creating characters are game-play was far too heavy to deal with.  As a result, we ended up using D&D 3, which I have used previous for the setting (total systems tally: 6)
 Which had some odd results.  Both of my players were used to 3.5 D&D, whereas I am totally unfamiliar with it.  As such, we spend a small amount of time in character generation negotiating the differences between 3.0 and 3.5.  I thought that this might cause trouble in play (the GM not knowing the system can be tough) but it ended up okay.

Setting:  The city of Chorus is a very large, very ancient city with a gazillion rival factions competing.  Think Lankhmar, but somewhat less totally over-the-top -- people don't carry around barbarian broadswords in public.  There is little explicit magic, with one exception, but there are all sorts of eldritch creatures are cults lurking just below the surface of day-to-day life (and deeper -- there are a lot of complexities in the setting.)  I hope this explanation is sufficient -- I'm bad at hooking settings.
 The major magical exception is a group called the Excelsior Church.  They are a religious group which has entered the city very recently (about 10-50, so far undefined) with the goal of converting the populace.  They are interested in humanity, as individuals and as a whole, because they see everyone as a part of the divine.  Largely, these are Good Guys, although there are often problems, and they possess amazingly potent healing and blessing magic (think D&D clerics.)

Characters:  One player played a character that he had brought through many different games in this city, to the point where I consider him a "signature character" of the setting, and use him as a system conversion benchmark as well as an NPC.  He is named William the Grey, also called Will.  A gentleman thief / con man, he occupies the criminal underclass of the city, but is constantly preying off the nobles, particularly pretty ones.  In D&D terms, he is a Rogue/Sorcerer, with his sorcery purely as coincidental "luck" rather than magic.  Will has run in to foul demon beasties on two occaisions, and is now quite wary of such things.

 The other player liked this idea and made a somewhat similar character called, I believe, Ceriak?  I forget.  Ceriak was a con-man and swindler who had fallen in with the church as a trusted lay-clergy.  He had a great deal more "magic" than Will, also all "luck" and "hunches," including the ability to disguise his rather odious motives.

 Both of these characters, Will especially, are distinguished by the fact that they tend to by wildly amoral, in a very self-interested way.  Will's player in particular told me that he liked this setting because it let him play this sort of character -- normally not feasible for an RPG storyline.

System:  Was used largely for skill checks, but nearly every scene (except each of the openings) was driven by a skill check -- often Gather Information, but sometimes Diplomacy, Bluff, Listen or Spot.  There was one combat scene, but it was brief because the bad guys were sorely outmatched.

 I decided to start en media res with will stealing some diamonds from a noble house after drugging (sleep spell, the player insisted) their guards, only to find the diamonds already stolen.  Background info was quickly filled in -- the diamons arrived in the city recently from somewhere, they were unusually large, two were blue colored and one red.
 A quick scan of the room (spot check) revealed a man in black clothes, face covered, hiding in a corner.  Will and he negotiated for a while, and Will ended up convincing this other thief to give him one (blue) diamond.  Whilst talking he noticed his accent was strange, and reasonably hard to play.
 Whilst walking out, Will notices that the diamond has an odd pentagonal cut.
 Sadly, this scene didn't connect into the rest of the plot as well as I thought.

Cut to C
 C is walking around collecting alms from various poor people in the Industrial Quarter (the second poorest part of the city).  He notices one of his common donors -- an abandoned mother and prostitute -- is very upset, and pries.  It turns out that her oldest son has been missing for a few days, and had been hanging around the docks (opposite side of the city, doesn't get along well with the industrial quarter gangs.)  She is worried that he's been shanghaied, but the church officials have been so busy lately (fill in info: they have a mysterious VIP guest coming from their capital) that she hasn't had the nerve to ask them for help.  C takes her money and says he'll look into it.

Cut to W
The next morning, he finds most of his usual fences are totally occupied with mysterious transactions.  Puzzled, he finds himself forced to travel to a jeweller named Max, his one contact who isn't totally swamped.  By "coincidence" Max lives in the Docks.  (fill in info: Max is one of the few people who runs business between the Docks and the Industrial District, the two major criminal areas of the city.  He is in a precarious position but, in his own way, untouchable.  In the manner of fences, he is grotesquely fat.)

Cut to Max's
 W and Max negotiate around the diamond for a while (fill in info: W has dealt with Max once before, when he stole a galleon.)  Max tells him that everyone is swamped with strange goods, and mentions that he knows about an unusual black ship which has docked.  W, nervous about another encounter with demons, backs off, but just then C enters, asking about said ship.  W has worked with him before, and they agree to pay Max for some info.  He tells them that the area is closed off, the ship is huge and made of metal, and that no one has seen who is on the ship, or knows someone who directly traded with them.  Plied with more coin, he lets them know about a dockhand who saw them, once, and provided Max with the info.  Max also has some gems that apparently came from the ship, which he shows W.  They have the same cut as a diamon.  W gives M the diamond for safekeeping.  Upon examination, he tells W that this cannot be a diamond -- the cut is impossible.  W n C leave.

W asks C if he has time to talk.  They retire to a nearby church, and W begins to ask him about the Church's views on demons.  C doesn't get it for a while (the Church has strange ideas about such things) but gradually cops to the idea that this guy has seen strange things, and offers to introduce him to his higher-ups, in particular a man called Landon, when a good time comes.  This is a very cool scene, in the actor-stance role-play style that we all enjoy, and also drastically reshapes the course of the game.
 In the end, they agree to further investigate the ship, because it seems Foul and W wants to find out what is going on with his diamond.  W goes to talk to the dockhand who saw the shipgoers, C goes to try to track the source of the goods.

 I played this scene cutting back and forth between the two conversations -- C with a merchant who had a lot of goods and W with the dockhand.  Through assorted trickiness and lots of spells + sense motive checks, they learn that:
The goods are strange, including digital watches, silks, spices, and lots of strange metal trinkets with no apparent use.
The merchant doesn't have a memory of how he obtained the goods, and is trying to cover it up.  The dockhand can't clearly recall the night he saw the men from the ship, but does remember that there was one dressed in white and the rest in black, and that they walked in synchonicity.
The dockhand had a girl that he was going to marry when he had the money, but shortly after he started talking about his experience (and getting money) she disappeared and he seems to either have forgotten her or be in denial.
Both men have bad, constant headaches.

They regroup at the church and discuss.  W goes to take a look at the ship, and C asks around for more info, neither of which resolves much.  C makes an appointment to talk to Landon tomorrow, and they decide to call it a night.

Attack: (for this scene, I offered C's player an NPC, which he declined.)
Perhaps the most rail-roaded scene of the night, this was going to happen, it was mostly a question of how.

In the night, W is attacked by two men in all black -- looking very much like the thief he ran into.  They are holding him to his bed and strapping something to his head.  As he wakes up, one of them collapses -- seemingly for no reason.  W gets into a tussle with the other one, but he proves to be far stronger than his small frame would permit.  However, he too collapses, but giving W a strange familiar tingling feeling.
W lights a lamp to find a shadow with no source outline against the wall.  W has run into this fellow once before -- in D&D terms he is a Shadow / Rogue who works for the various cults around the city.  His name, although he can't say it, is Sombre, and herein he is referred to as S.  S makes it clear that he is not hostile, kills the two intruders, and talks with Will using pantomime.  He eventually gets out that he is familiar with these people -- in fact, they were the ones that turned him into a shadow, apparently by putting him into a gem?  S says that they will be back soon, with more force, and they he wants to try to make them go away and not come back, because he is very afraid that they will take over the city.  W agrees to help him and he departs.

Sadly, this hook didn't end up coming up again, for time constraints and because of player decisions.

W examines the bodies and finds that the men have metal worked into their bodies, gems replacing the right eye, and assorted wires running all about.  He is (rightly) somewhat peturbed by this, especially when he removes their device from his forehead and finds that there were wires running into his skull.

In the morning--
W wakes C very early in the morning, takes him back to the apartment, and shows him the corpses.  C agrees that they are either demons or the work of demons (demons, in Excelsior parlance, being anything that drains the fundamental potential of humanity), and thinks that they should show Landon (here on called L).
 They smuggle the bodies to the main mission by secure coach and stash them in the woodshed.

Landon --
 Landon is a no-nonsense middle aged bishop who is in charge of the aspects of the Chorus mission that deal with the poor, particularly the industrial district.  This is the first time he has showed up, but I like him, and plan to make him a recurring NPC.
 Landon is very busy and surprised to see them, but manages to make time via hasty delegation.  Upon seeing the bodies, he is very surprised, pronounces them certainly demonic, and asks a gazillion questions.  He is somewhat sad that the Church didn't catch on to the boat earlier.  W shows him the device (a little black box) that was strapped to his head.  Wires emerge from the box and move towards L, but he sends them back with a stern banishment.  Shocked, W is very careful about wrapping the box and keeping it hidden on his person.
 L says that the discovery of the ship is very important, and that they should mention it to the Emissary who is coming today.
 They retire to L's office, and W tells him about the cults he has had run-ins with.  L says that the Church is dimly aware of them, but that there are factions who feel that they are not powerfully enough (politically or militarily) to move against these factions.  L doesn't say it, but clearly disagrees.  He arranges for them to meet the Emissary, but warns them that he will be quite strange, rumor saying that he has come directly from the realm of the Divine.

The Emissary--
 I wasn't sure that this scene was going to happen.  Like most scenes with powerful NPCs, it had a bit of railroading, but the PCs seemed to enjoy it, especially W's player, who has followed the setting for a while.  This is the first hint that the church is not all Good... or at least that their Good is a little strange.
 A crowded room for the reception, W stands out like a sore thumb in a group of robed clergy.  The emissary enters -- a impossibly tall and beautiful man dressed in simple white clothes.  He immediately picks W out and asks to borrow his sword.  He has apparently never seen a sword before, but admires its sharpness and weighting, and seems to be quite good at using it.  He mutters a few things like "very realistic" under his breath.
 Suddenly, he slashes at one of the priests, decapitating him.
 He seems somewhat surprised and put out by this result.  He asks someone to "take care of it," but the man is dead -- there is nothing the priests can do.  The Emissary sighs, reaches down, and reattaches his head, then demands that Will tell him what is going on.  W says he'd better show him, and C, W, L and the Emissary leave a shocked room full of clergy.

The Conclusion--
 At this point it was quite late, and I wanted to wrap up the game with a nice "punchy and creepy" end and let it sit.  Worked pretty well.
 The Emissary sees the bodies and remarks that they are "very advanced" but is otherwise non-plussed.  L demands that he do something about the situation, but he refuses, saying "my purpose is to fight demons, and these are not demons.  They are very important."  He excuses himself, saying that he is missing his own party.
 Everyone is a bit stunned, and clearly angry.  W asks L what is going on with this, and L can't respond.  He is very tactful, but clearly angry.  They three talk, and reason that perhaps the Emissary wants to convert these people.  It is all very strange.
 The next day, the ship is gone.

Player Comments:
 In general, both players seemed to engage with the game.  We talked a bit afterwards about what was going on in regard to overarching plot and metaphysics, reminisced about previous games, and such.  I talked about the historical metaphors for the game (Chinese Trade Debt, Slavery, etc.)  C's player talked about running the setting with GURPS (my thoughts: ecch), but talking about systematic modelling is the way he shows engagement with games, so that was good.  W's player was very sad that I couldn't run more, and talked about what he saw his character doing in the future, particularly with regards to L.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Suggestions?  Questions?


Russell Hoyle

Ben wrote a great actual play post and asked:
Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Questions?


I like your style of play-report - a meaty scene synopsis and an examination of players engagement etc.

In building the story, I get the feeling that there was a degree of player authorship too?

Your setting sounds interesting. I would love to hear a little more about it. For some reason I kept thinking of China Mieville's book Perdito Street Station. How would you describe the technology common to Chorus?


Ben Lehman

Quote from: Russell HoyleIn building the story, I get the feeling that there was a degree of player authorship too?

BL>  Some, but not a lot.  Although this is changing, the Brown gaming group is very focused on actor-stance play with any narrative content piped straight from the GM.  I have heard that this is changing recently, and have certainly agitated some on behalf of flexible-stance play myself, but for this game it was reasonably in place.
 Most of the "background information" (about %60) was me, in general (*).  Anything relating to the player's past history was group negotiated.

(*)  Note that this was not necessarily dictatorial.  Usually I would suggest something, the players would amend it, and we would bounce it back and forth a bit before settling on a result.  This is my usual in my style of GMing -- a sort of "supreme ruler advised by the citizens," I guess.

Your setting sounds interesting. I would love to hear a little more about it. For some reason I kept thinking of China Mieville's book Perdito Street Station. How would you describe the technology common to Chorus?

BL>  Ah, the setting.  I could go on for hours, but I won't.

 Technology, then:

The area around Chorus is largely medevial / early rennaisance, with some very sophisticated animal-powered gear-driven factories which have fallen into disuse, as well as some complicated architectual techniques (arcology building, essentially) that survive only in a few master-disciple lineages.  Gunpowder is known in cities, but imported, and used largely for fireworks and demolitions rather than cannon.  There have previously been empires, but government is now limited to two kingdoms (somewhat far away), two city states (Chorus and Blaine, both ports and the only major cities in the area) and a lot of local strongmen in the countryside ruling over small, nameless agricultural villages.  It has been this way for a long, long time, largely do to the influence of a very powerful Illuminati style group that controlled society for a long, long time.  This group (the druids) was recently beheaded by the Excelsior Church, and as such invention and innovation have been sky-rocketing.

 However, the rest of the world is not the same.

 On the southern continent (a meso-american analogue) a great empire is carving itself out by the strength of rifle-infantry.  In the far east (where our black ship is from) the Metal Emporer (a computer generated hive-mind AI) rules a China analogue filled with trains, blimps, chemical factories, and cyborgs, all powered by the strength of imported human souls.  In the far north, beyond the clan-held lands called Orc, there are the Snow-Wraiths -- pale-skinned creatures who raid with weapons made of solid light.  In the west...

In the west, the world is complicated.

Chorus, being the foremost trade city of this continent, and perhaps the world, brings in a lot of different elements from these places.  At it's core, it is a gritty rennaisance city-state, but it is easy to buy opium, harder to buy gunpowder, and harder still to be reotractively genetically engineered into a psychic monstrosity, but all these services are available -- for the right buyer, paying the right price.

I have not read Chia Melville, although my friends are quite taken with him, so I am not certain if I have things in common with him.

Answer your questions about the setting a bit?