Monthly Archives: October 2022
Storytime: The Insane 20-Person, 14-Hour, Multiple ttRPG Game System Adventure I Played In At WorldCon 1984
Over the weekend I was reminiscing about my first big convention, the 42nd WorldCon when I was 13 years old, and how I wandered around by myself in LA with hundreds of dollars for most of a week. For those curious about the whole post, it’s at the end of this blog entry.
But one of the things I have gotten the most feedback on from that story was mentioning I played in a “20-player, 14-hour game of mixed Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, 2nd ed Boot Hill, & Metamorphosis Alpha.” And, yeah, that was pretty crazy. Several people have asked me to talk more about that game, and it was darn near 40 years ago, but I’ll give a quick rundown to the best of my recollection.
There were lots of “Open Gaming” rooms at the 1984 WorldCon, spread over numerous hotels, which were set aside for people to just organize their own game sessions. I am sure there were organized tournaments and scheduled games as well, but I didn’t interact with that end of things at all (and still rarely do). Instead, I had a backpack with my favorite characters, a bunch of dice, some snacks, and a couple of rulebooks, and looked for people interested in striking up an ad hoc game. That was how gaming had been handled in the tiny convention that was my first taste of cons in Norman the year before, so that was what I expected to be the “standard.”
And, there was a pretty robust 24/7 gaming scene in at least one of the hotels, and I got a few games in. But the one I remember best started about 5-6pm, I think on Thursday (might have been Friday), and came together because a charismatic young man (I thought of him as “an adult” at the time, I’d guess now he was somewhere in his 20s, likely college-aged) stood on a chair in one of the biggest open-game rooms, and shouted he would run a game for any number of people, allowing any characters, from any game system, all together.
There was a lot of slack-jawed disbelief, but when he started setting up multiple fishing tackle boxes of dice, miniatures, and terrain, a bunch of us got interested and went over to see what was up. There were 20 of us players (give or take), and only 3 open round banquet tables in the room. I mentioned there were spare tables a couple of floors down and a young woman (older than me, but I thought not by much — I do not remember her name… I don’t think though it might have been Susan, but she had what I thought was an adorable Canadian accent) said we should go steel them. And she was leading the mission, because she was going to playing an Expert Thief.
So a few of went with her, rode an escalator down one level, cleared and grabbed two round tables no one seemed to be using, rolled them down the hall, had 2-person teams brace them on the escalator for a ride up, and rolled them down to the game room.
The GM had the now 5 tables arranged in a circle, stored his stuff on the floor under them, stood in the middle, and explained the game. First, he really meant any character, any game system. We each got to do one thing in a round, and he’d deal with each of us in our native game system. If there was one monster, the Metamorphasis Alpha characters would fire gyrojet rounds at it, the various D&D players swing swords and fling spells, and the Boot Hill gang (all of one table IIRC) could fan revolvers and unload shotguns. I’m pretty sure he played fast and loose with the rules, all the rules, but it never interfered with the game.
I played a high-level cleric who worshipped Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel, and carried said saint’s cudgel as an artifact. There were several D&D characters of various editions and classes, a flying psychic telekinetic blue whale and it’s ally a white 4-armed gorilla covered in chitinous armor plates, a Boot Hill outlaw gang (maybe called the Broken Trestle Gang?), and I am absolutely forgetting several folks.
The GM got straight to the set-up, explaining that each of us had a dream where we were told by a wispy voice that only we could save everything, and the End was coming to destroy the Demiurges, destroying all of reality, and we had to stop it. And then our characters woke up on an island covered in various ship, train, and carriage wrecks, with a huge ruby tower at the center. We roleplayed introductions briefly, dealt with the fact several characters thought they were still dreaming (or had gone mad, or were high on bad moonshine, or all of the above)… and then just as we were trying to figure out who would be in charge and what we were going to do, creatures that looked like the garthim from the Dark Crystal came wading out of the water to attack us, and they had small turrets on their shells with machine guns in them.
It was quickly clear that if you didn’t have cover, the machine guns would chew you up. And if you did have cover, the guns would chew it up in a few rounds. So we tried to cover each other and fell back toward the ruby tower. But we couldn’t get in the front door. So, the flying blue whale told us all to climb on board it, and it flew up the tower… and through a big crack in the sky.
And we went reality-hopping on a psychic mutant blue whale. If someone’s character died, they ran to go grab food (we all pitched in), then usually came back to watch, at least for a few hours.
I absolutely can’t remember everything that happened. We stayed up all night, eating cold pizza and drinking warm Pepsi, and I had the time of my life. There were undead WWII battleships, living “evil eyes” that would fly into the wound of a dead person to become a “third eye” and possess them, floating islands, reality and alternate planes curling back on each other, and at least a little time was spent in fantasy, Old West, and Generation Ship in Space settings. One of the D&D rogues ended up with a sawed-off Boot Hill shotgun. One of the Boot Hill gang members got a ray gun from Metamorphasis Alpha. The psychic blue whale sacrificed itself to save us when a spiked ghost train attacked us in the Astral Plane by crashing into it head-on, while an AD&D wizard riding it broke his Staff of the Magi on its cowcatcher.
We worked out that The End wanted all our worlds to stop existing, and had discovered our worlds all existed because the Demiurges willed them to, and all the Demiurges were gathered in one place, and it was going to kill them, but we could stop it. And the flying eyes all belonged to an extradimensional creature that served as a lookout for the End. It had a weird name, like “That Which Disapproves,” though I doubt that’s exactly right.
We played all evening, all night, and well into the next morning. Character after character died, but we knew it was okay, because if we stopped the End, they would live again, and if we didn’t we’d all cease to exist.
We ended up with just 5-6 of us left, in the Modern Era, in LA, hunting the End through the halls of a hotel… and finally found it. It was a scrawny, unimpressive, short boogeyman, lurking outside a room at the hotel. And it was looking through the door at… us.
Us, the players. We were the Demiurges. The End wanted to kill us, and if our characters didn’t stop it, we, as real-world people, would be killed by it. The idea thrilled me…and freaked me out.
But the last few heroes (including my cleric) destroyed the End, ensuring that the worlds of adventure would continue forever. And we realized we could, as our characters, go into the room and meet ourselves, as players. And in that moment, having gorged myself on junk food and soda and been awake for something like 36 hours and playing for 14, I believed. But, we decided in-character that might freak out the Demiurges, so we left.
Also, there was something about a dartboard. There was a folding-cabinet bar-style dartboard in that hotel conference room for some reason, and it came into play in the story of the End, but I can’t for the life or me remember how.
And the game ended. We exchanged long-distance phone numbers and address and promised to keep in touch and I, at least, had lost all that info by the end of the weekend.
Then I went and slept in the Anime Room, because it was closer than my hotel room.
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For those of you who want some context, here’s the story I posted on Social Media about my time at the 42nd WorldCon.
I don’t have kids, and I am well aware that things were different 40 years ago. But apparently even people my own age are shocked to learn my mother was fine with me wandering around LA on my own at age 13 with $500 on me.
Though to be fair, $300 of that was traveler’s checks.
It was for the 42nd WorldCon, and I was almost 14.
My mother went with me, and we had a hotel room, but we mostly checked in on a notepad in the room. We rarely saw each other.
She was filking. I was gaming.
I went to a Elfquest #20 Howl/release party. A woman dressed as Nightfall flirted with me and gave me first-ever romantic kiss (from someone I didn’t even know the real name of).
Saw the anime Lensman movie.
Was part of a banquet table heist so we could fit more gamers in a room.
Rode to Disneyland with C.J. Cherryh.
Ate breakfast at a diner counter at 4am, discussing Return of the Jedi with some nightflyers who weren’t, AFAICT, die-hard geeks.
Played a 20-player, 14-hour game of mixed Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, 2nd ed Boot Hill, & Metamorphosis Alpha.
Bought my first junk metal wall-hanged sword.
Broke my first junk metal wall-hanger sword.
Bought my second junk-metal wall-hanger sword.
Got offered, and declined, my first beer from a stranger.
Ordered a delivery pizza just for me to eat watching movies, for the first time.
Saw, for the first time, ALIEN, Dawn of the Dead, Heavy Metal, Flesh Gordon, Dark Star, Sapphire & Steel, The Quatermass Experiment, Mad Max, Life of Brian, Clockwork Orange, and Zardoz. The video quality was often terrible, and some may have been taped off movie screens.
That was my 2nd or 3rd scifi convention ever, and it would be a high-point until I got to a Gen Con in the late 1990s.
I was a BIG 13-year old, in both height and weight. I’d never been unsupervised while away from my home town before. We didn’t have cell phone, or pagers.
Now as it turns out, I was fine. I can’t say if it was genius parenting, or luck, but the experience was formative for me in a lot of ways. Not the least of which was I saw how total strangers reacted when someone whipped out a big wad of $20s, and stopped doing that.
I have a long track record of loving what I think of “Hidden World” modern fantasy settings. A lot of it comes from my reading of pulp novels as a child, but certainly a number of more recent authors and stories have fed into it as well. Whether it’s magic nannies coming to save children from the troubles of everyday life, caretakers with magic devices in their homes who take in children during the Blitz (and possibly animate armor soldier to fight Nazis), wizard acting like detectives in the modern world, fantasy detectives doing the hard boiled act in feudal settings, magic worlds beneath the streets of London (or New York, or heck Dallas), immortal swordsmen, secret clans of assassins, bounty hunters (literally) from hell, busters-of-ghosts, psychic subcultures, revenant goths, or WWII witches and werewolves, I’m there for it.
Or, you know, ShadowFinder.
Sometimes I have ideas I think would work well within Hidden World settings, often while taking in Hidden World stories and thinking of directions the worldbuilding could go, but doesn’t.
Here are some.
Numerous magical defenses have been invented over the millennia, but the most common were developed in the 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s. These wards are far more effective against types of weapons that were invented after they wards were developed. Thus a fist or claw is almost always effective against creatures and mages with ancient wards, and clubs, swords, and bows are more likely to be effective than firearms, flamethrowers, and grenades… though if someone is carrying around an ancient design of Chinese fire lance, there’s a good chance they are doing so for a good reason.
When you need a body removed quickly and without evidence, but also need it to be treated with respect and buried with honors and traditions proper to its life, you call the Gravedigger Clan. A cult devoted to a wide range of gods of the dead and burial from different pantheons, and devoted to preventing the rise of undead and corpse-curses, the Gravedigger Clan is neutral in all other affiars, and offer their services fast and free to anyone who knows how to get hold of them.
The Mask Arcade
The Mask Arcade is a massive dance club and cocktail lounge that has multiple tiers, indoor and outdoor areas, several different themes, and a number of private, semi-private, and VIP areas scattered about its premises. Numerous street performers wander about at all times, sometimes stunt exhibitions are held, and there are numerous small stages where weird acts can perform. It also requires all attendees to dress in costume, and taking pictures is forbidden and strictly enforced. There’s always a line to get in, and bouncers walk the line and let people with costumes with “the right look for tonight’s theme” go in ahead of the line through various side entrances.
Officially, this is because it’s schtick is to be a nonstop costume ball cranked to 11 that attracts celebrities and . Actually, it’s because the Mask Arcade is designed to be a neutral ground for Hidden World ladies, lords, adventurers, monsters, and agents to meet, move about freely (even if they have horns, or fangs, or wear armored trench coats and carry katanas), and do business.
Almost no one is attacked by hordes of ninja. However, all true ninjas are trained in the art of summoning, and everything they summon looks like a ninja, and appears when conjured by stepping out of shadows and from behind cover. These conjureninjas can be used to try to assassinate, or cover a true ninja’s escape, but they are also often used as distractions while the true ninja carries out their actual mission, or as cover to all the true ninja to get closer to a target while looking just like the summoned ninjamancy. As a result hordes of ninja appear to jump out of nowhere, and experienced Hidden World agents know you need to kill them all, because one might be the true ninja you can’t afford to ignore.
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Miles looked at the pile of boneless chicken wings on the tv tray, and sighed. He’d ordered 30, in 6 different sauce flavors, and had eaten 17 or 18 so far. The pile that was left was more than enough food for a normal person, and the pain in his gut told him it was going to be a slog to get through it all. Not to mention the few remaining fried pickles, a slice of carrot cake, and a slice of fudge cake, which he’d taken a few bites of before deciding the flavor didn’t go well with the garlic butter wings he’d begun with.
The remaining 2 cans of Cherry Bomm soda would help, of course. And, if he had to, he could get up and grab another 6-pack. Miles couldn’t remember if he’d already eaten the 5 teriyaki wings. If not, he’d definitely need more soda, the teriyaki sauce from this place was saltier than he liked, but he kept ordering it. Just like he’d keep eating the food, though he’d stopped enjoying it one full flavor ago. But the taste let him feel something, and stuffing food into his gob until he was in pain was one of the few ways he could claim control over his life.
It was just a matter of timing. Hauling his 550 lb. mass out of the powered recliner he spent most of every day in wasn’t something he undertook at a whim. Just getting more Cherry Bomm wasn’t a good enough reason to undergo the effort. But, other errands beyond arm’s reach were beginning to pile up. He needed to pee, for one thing. He also hadn’t grabbed the game controlled before sitting down the last time he’d been up and around, two hours ago when the food delivery had arrived. And he was beginning to get worse-than-usual heartburn, so some antacids might be in order as well.
Plus Edward, his cat, was going to want to be fed soon as well. Edward’s dry kibble feeder was on a timer, but the massive, fluffy red ragdoll got a single can of wet food every night, and that had to be done by hand. It was, honestly, a lot of work for Miles, given the food had to be put on the floor, and the old bowl picked up, and Edward insisted on being underfoot as soon as he realized it was gooshiefood time. But Edward was also one of the only creatures in the world whom Miles loved and who loved him in return, so he made the effort every night, without fail.
So, there really was enough to justify the effort to stand and stomp heavily about his tiny basement apartment getting things done. Miles shrugged internally, and pushed the thought aside for now. He was watching one of his favorite shows, the one about people who forged swords, and it would be done in 10-15 minutes anyway. He could pause it at any time of course, like everything he watched it was streaming and on-demand, but it was a good enough excuse to procrastinate the unpleasantness of having to bear his own weight.
A loud burp signaled he likely had enough room for another boneless wing, so Miles dutifully plucked a sticky, sauce-covered lump from the cardboard container they’d come in, and swirled it first in blue cheese dressing, then ranch. One reason he ordered from this restaurant so often was their boneless wings were really huge — two-to-three times the mass of a fast food nugget. So it was the work of more than a bite to chew up the fried breading and meat, even for someone with his vast experience eating. Normally, the second (and if needed) third bite came hot on the heels of swallowing the first one, but the heartburn grew worse as he swallowed. Miles decided to put down the remaining hunk of food–carefully balanced inside the big cup of blue cheese, so he’d know which one was partially eaten–and try to wash it down with a swig of over-caffeinated sickly sweet cherry-citrus soda.
As he held his sausagelike arm up to keep the can at his lips, a muscle spasm shot through it and made him tremor. His grip slipped, for just a second, and a splash of Cherry Bomm leaped onto his smooth double chin, dripping down to join a smear of fudge frosting and some atomic buffalo sauce on his t-shirt. Though a wave of revulsion shot through Miles as both the state of his hygiene, and the fact he was so weak he could pull an arm-muscle drinking soda, there was no sign of it on his face. His self-loathing was too common and familiar to be worth getting upset over.
The lights went out all over his apartment, and the television blinked to black silence.
Miles put down his soda, and closed his eyes. He was pretty sure he’d paid the electric bill — he’d had a nice run of art commissions from people who found AI-generated images couldn’t scratch their need to see customized anthropomorphic animal porn, a big part of his regular clientele — so while his credit cards were all still way to full, his bills should all be up-to-date. But if he’d forgotten, or if the bank had screwed him by suspending his payment for “unusual activity” again, it would likely mean going to a bill-paying service in person. Which was a horror that far outstripped mundane indignities like standing up.
Opening his eyes, he strained to look out one of the thin windows running along the very top of the wall in his main room, the only visual access his apartment had to the outside world. It was well past sundown, and raining, so it wasn’t that surprising no light was coming through, but it gave Miles some weak hope. If power was out on the whole block, that wasn’t something he was responsible for fixing. Given the rain, he could almost convince himself that, this time, he wasn’t the one who had fucked up.
His chair shuttered lightly, and a warm, comforting presence pressed up against his right calf. Miles fumbled for a moment to find his smartphone in the dark, then struggled to stab the tiny icons on its screen with his fat fingers, but in a moment he toggled its flashlight function, and spotlighted Edward in the cone of brightness.
Edward was a huge cat for the ragdoll breed, even ignoring how fluffy his red-and-cream fur was, or how chonky he was. Miles often suspected there were some Maine coons, or Norwegian forest cats, sitting proudly in the branches of Edward’s family tree. But the cat had adopted him when he’d first moved into the tiny back-ally apartment, and hadn’t come with any papers or family history. And, honestly, as a kitten Edward had been so cute Miles hadn’t asked any questions. Even taking the feline to the vet regularly, and paying to have a groomer make monthly house calls, were small prices to pay for Edward’s companionship.
Edward’s eyes were slit against the smartphone’s light, but he still hopped onto Miles’ belly and paced up it to gently head-butt Miles’ face. The pressure of the cat’s thirty-one pounds on his chest made Miles realize both his arm pain and heartburn had gone away, which was a welcome if surprising relief. Miles was in some kind of pain most of every day, and rarely did it retreat quickly or without a fight.
“Heya, Edward buddy. Wanting your can of gooshie?”
As always, Miles hated the sound of his own voice. He always thought it sounded like he was slowly being smothered in his own fat which, if he was being honest, was essentially true.
Edward sat back on Miles’ belly, and regarded him calmly, which was pretty typical behavior. Then the cat spoke, which very much was not.
“I do, my dearest, but to my annoyance, it’s going to have to wait.”
The voice was a pleasant and even tenor, with no specific accent Miles could identify, and exactly the way Miles had always thought Edward would sound if he spoke. Which, somehow, was even more surprising than the fact the cat just had spoken.”
“Ah,” began Miles, followed by “Um..” and an “Er…”
“Yes,” said Edward, calmly. “I can talk. Or, rather, you can hear. I’m not any different than I was this afternoon. You, on the other hand…”
Edward locked his gaze on Miles’ eyes.
“You’re dead, my sweet human.”
“Well, crap,” replied Miles. “So… not heartburn and a pulled arm muscle?”
“No, of course not.” Edward sounded just slightly annoyed. “You had a massive heart attack, which I am sure is a surprise to neither of us. Your heart was dead long before your brain, which is why you experienced it as much as you did. In fact, your brain isn’t truly ‘dead’ now, though it’s close enough for us to get started.”
“Uh-huh,” said Miles. “So, this is just the last, feeble sparks of dying neurons conjuring something comforting before I pass into oblivion?”
“No,” said Edward. “Well, not mostly. I mean, THAT is.”
Edward tilted his head toward the kitchenette, and Miles let his gaze follow despite the darkness his phone light wouldn’t normally penetrate. But, in the kitchen, it wasn’t dark. Instead, it was softly lit in pastel blues and yellows, and his mother was standing there. Not truly in his cramped kitchenette, but standing in front of the oven of his childhood home’s kitchen, smiling to herself as she pulled a tray of chocolate-and-caramel-chip cookies out of the oven. The smell hit Miles like a fist made of pure nostalgia, and the memory of how those cookies had tasted struck him immediately after.
Without giving any thought to how much work it would be, he began to stand…
Only to have Edward place one paw firmly on his chest and, somehow, keep him pinned in the recliner. Miles glanced at the cat, then back at his mother, but she was gone. Cruelly, the smell of fresh cookies lingered.
“Sorry,” said Edward gently. “I wish you could just go, maybe find your way to the Bright Lands, and I’d come with you. But you are called, she’ll be here soon, and I need to prepare you.”
–End Part One
Feedback and Support
As with most of the short fiction I present here, the chance this will be continued is based directly on how many people suggest they’d like to read more of it. And, feedback from my supporters on Patreon, which make this entire blog possible, will unsurprisingly have the greatest weight.
I’ve had the dreaded scheduling conflict eat the past couple of Saturday games, and the next few don’t look good either, so no new session posts for my Gatekeeper’s campaign for PF2 for a while. But I am still jotting down PF2 ideas when they come to me, especially those that feel like they might make for interesting encounters or adventureplots.
I don’t know that this one will ever make it into the campaign, but if so I’ll list this to my Gatekeeper’s campaign index.
Old Witch Hazel
Also known as Grantha Mountain-Ash and Quickbeam Lament, Old Witch Hazel is legendarily old and grumpy arboreal (sometimes called a “treant” by locals) that appears to be a moss-covered, partially burned rowan tree, possibly wrapped around a larger, even older tree, with foliage and berries in states representing all 4 seasons. Old Witch Hazel can supposedly be bribed to teach occult and primal magic secrets, but no one knows anyone who has ever successfully done so. The treant is also known to oppose hags, skelm, and evil fey. While a few folks say this is also just rumor and myth, there are dozens of people who will attest to having seen Old Witch Hazel drive such creatures away from small farm communities, roads, and peaceful groves.
Old Witch Hazel is also well-known for thrashing younger humanoids, apparently for no reason. Such attacks always take place outside of settlements, and many adults claim that clearly the treant is warning adolescents away from dangerous creatures or punishing them for bad behavior or violating some secret tree-pace, perhaps without knowing it. Those that have been beaten by Old Witch Hazel protect their innocence, claiming they had done nothing and gone nowhere to invite such treatment.
When Old Witch Hazel attacks youngsters, all its attacks are nonlethal(taking the normal -2 to its attacks for dealing nonlethal damage). It also often throws clusters of rotting berries, which act like moderate water bombs (except they smell worse). If any target attempts to protect someone Old Witch Hazel was attacking, the treant always switches to the defender, ignoring the old target as long as it doesn’t make new attacks. After everyone has been hit at least once, or anyone knocked unconscious, Old Witch Hazel lets them flee, and wanders off into the nearest woods.
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One common response to yesterday’s MegaRuins campaign ideas article was to ask “what kinds of ttRPG adventures would happen in this setting?” That’s a great question, and one I feel too few ttRPG campaign ideas address. The short answer is “anything you like,” since MegaRuins was conceived as a setting, not a specific plot or theme, but that’s not particularly helpful to a GM looking for inspiration. So, instead, here’s a list of movies that I believe are good inspirations for MegaRuins ttRPG plots.
These movies ALL have a range of content warnings to consider before watching them. Please take appropriate care for yourself, and maybe check out a site such as doesthedogdie.com if there are ideas and visuals you don’t need getting added to your head. (Goodness knows I’m not always in the right headspace to witness recreations of cruelty, horror, or trauma).
Aliens (1986)/Attack the Block (2011), Deep Rising (1998)/Gremlins 2 (1990)/Re-Animator (1985)/Resident Evil (2002)/The Silent Sea (2021)/The Thing (1984)/Virus (1999)
The “trapped somewhere with unexpected horrors” genre includes a lot more than the movies I listed, but they feel representative. Whether a secret lab or ground zero of some new threat, the area is remote or locked down and they aren’t trapped in there with you… you’re trapped in there with them.
The more interesting the “there” you are trapped in, the more fun as a ttRPG scenario. It’s one thing to face a shapeshifting alien mutant zombie in an underground lab run by a mad AI, and something very different to do it on the city-block-sized gondola of a rotating ten-mile-high Ferris wheel arcology… with a mad AI.
The Belko Experiment (2016)/Mayhem (2017)
You might want to change why this happens (this is a great place for a rogue AI to make terrible decisions for what it feels are logical reasons, for example), and you can change from just an office environment to any sealable section of your MegaRuin/MegaStructure, but the core idea of Battle Royal In A Building remains both a good kickoff for a dystopian campaign, and a nice backdrop to set something else for the PCs to have to do, like rescue someone important (a la Escape From New York) or use the distraction for a heist (shades of Army of the Dead).
Daylight (1996), Meteor (1979), The Poseidon Adventure (1972 and 2005… and Poseidon in 2006), Skyscraper (2018), The Towering Inferno (1974)
If I was splitting hairs more narrowly I’d make a distinction between movies where you are trying to prevent or mitigate a disaster, and those where you are just trying to survive it. Both plots are great sources of ttRPG scenarios, though since a Gm has less control than a scriptwriter you may end up planning to run one of these plots and end up with PCs (though great success… or great failure) end up mostly tackling the other. And, of course, there’s the related sub-genre of running rescue missions in such conditions, which leans more closely to San Andreas (2015), Volcano (1997), and The Wave (2015), or of crooks using the opportunity to try to pull off a crime such as in Hard Rain (1998) or The Hurricane Heist (2018).
Die Hard (1988), Dredd (2012), The Raid (2011), The Rock (1996)
Criminals in buildings, and the need to stop them/survive their plot/get to them, can have the dystopian and/or scifi level ratcheted up when instead of a highrise, the building is an underground megacavern saltmine arcology, miles-long bridge city connecting continents, or any other MegaRuin.
Escape From New York (1981), Escape Plan (2013), The Platform (2019)
Whether the MegaRuin has been turned into a prison out of convenience, or it had a prison to begin with that’s now far more dangerous or uncontrolled than planned, dystopian prison stories offer a lot of options for PC adventures.
This is much more about societal breakdown than the kind of action-adventure I tend to thin of as near-future-dystopia ttRPG hooks… but there are a lot of different types of games and gamers out there, and this could translate very easily to a crumbling MegaStructure gone wrong.
Cube (1997), Death Race (2008), Death Race 2000 (1975), Escape Room (2019), The Most Dangerous Game (1932 and 2022), Hunger Games (2012)
The why can be adjusted to meet GM taste, the core issue is that the PCs have been put someplace full of traps, killer vehicles, and/or other contestants, and are being watched and hunted. Maybe it’s a 1-time thing… maybe it’s a weekly broadcast for the depraved masses.
Das Boot (1981), Murder on the Orient Express (1974 at al), Snowpiercer (2013), Speed (1994), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974 and 1998), Train to Busan (2016), Under Siege (1992), Unstoppable (2020)
Very little links these movies except that they all primarily take place on or around a vehicle… and that’s my point. Watching all of these should give you a great idea how to have a special setting influence lots of different genres of story, and that insight applies directly to doing near-future stories in structures that don’t exist yet. It’d be easy to put Speed on a building-sized dirigible, Murder on the Orient Express in an underwater mansion with hours before the next sub shuttle comes along, or Unstoppable on a space elevator car heading up toward the top anchor at dangerous speed.
Just a quick idea for a ttRPG campaign hook. Something I could see using with Everyday Heroes (once it’s out), Modern AGE, or Starfinder, just to name a few. This is just the start of setting up such a campaign, you’d need themes, plots, a kickoff… but the setting can help clarify those kinds of things.
It’s a few years into the future. Things are bad worldwide, but society hasn’t collapsed… except around the many megastructures built… or partially built… by governments trying to quell social disquiet and stimulate economies with massive, ill-conceived, projects that they mostly didn’t finish, and definitely didn’t properly maintain. The world is littered with mile-high towers, salt mine cities, floating artificial islands, eternally flying airship megamalls, and AI-controlled arcologies… but none of them are the glittering beacons of success and progress that were promised.
Many sit more than 90% empty, the cost of moving to them and living within them too great for populations to risk moving into unproven and experimental communities that often depend on advanced, untested systems to even provide basic necessities such as clear water and lighting. The empty spaces attract gangs, private military companies, scam artists, and billionaire 0.01%-ers who find whole metropolises worth of abandoned officers, warehouses, and apartments more convenient than secret bases in deserts and failed nations. Even those that are populated have significant problems, with autonomous AIs making decisions that seem increasingly divorced from reality, critical systems built using proprietary technologies failing as the companies that built them go bankrupt, and the politics of their creation shifting as they go from trophies of the administrations that began them to scapegoats for successors which find them an easy target to blame all current problems.
Each MegaRuin, and often every 30-50 floors within the same MegaRuin, has its own culture, power bases, secrets, faults, trade routes, and local traditions. It’s not that the whole world is an apocalypse, it’s that there are specific modern megastructure ruined areas that each have their own problems, hazards, and risks, and people who have a proven track record of operating successfully within them are always in demand.
Here are three example MegaRuins, just to start creative juices flowing.
The Circuit: A massive, mirrored, 450-kilometer circumference, 500-meter wide, 900-meter tall donut-shaped building that was designed to be the perfect “smart city,” controlled by a network of predictive AIs and built around multiple high-speed transit capsule tubes to allow for a 100% car-free, street free community where everything you need is within a 10-minute walk.
Of course it was built in a desert, with 1/3 of it sticking into a salt-water ocean, the systems were never completed, and the capsule system is a single fail point that, more and more, is failing. And since it never reached full capacity, the 10-minute walking communities are each missing at least one crucial facility, leaving populations having to cross gang territories and AI-enforced blockades to do things like get medical care, get mail, or for that matter get out of the Circuit.
Cloud 8: The largest airship ever built, Cloud 8 is actually 12 airships locked together with a framework that houses dozens of boutique businesses, cruise cabins, cargo bays, ultimate bungee event centers, glass-bottomed restaurants, and antimissile defense systems. The floating entertainment complex was supposed to fly around the world on a 2-year course, dropping in on major tourist destinations and becoming a mobile festival and shopping event that both drew passengers paying a premium to live in the air, and massive crowds at each destination willing to shell out big bucks for overpriced Cloud 8-branded goods.
And it worked… briefly. Then local businesses at all the major destinations around the world decided it was sucking much more money out of their economies than it was bringing in, and got local authorities to ban it. No major tourist destination allows it within 200 miles of them, and many countries refuse it access to their airspace entirely. That made selling rides at the top prices in the world impossible, and forced Cloud 8 to charge less for everything, as it could only get permission to go to 3rd- and 4th-tier locations.
But it is still a giant travelling business center, and it does still go around the world… so it has rapidly become a major source of drug smuggling, bootleg electronic broadcasts and pirated entertainment, and ethically questionable activities it offers patrons while over international waters. Cloud 8 is now a seedy, mob-run, 24-7 mobile red light district, and a favorite way for career criminals and shady business execs to flee any jurisdiction it can get into.
Starscraper: A 4-kilometer-high tower (with a 6-kilometer wide base) that was envisions as “stage one” of a project to build a space-elevator and was designed to house 10 million people. Named as a play on being taller than a mere “skyscraper,” the Starscraper was supposed to be the anchor of an entirely new space industry. But the advanced in materials science that was expected to be able to built the space elevator tether by the time the Starscraper was done turned out to be too slow and too expensive to scale up to the 100,000-kilometer size needed to access space from Earth.
Without the influx of businesses and industry tied to the cheap space travel that never happened, the Starscraper was too expensive to maintain. It’s also, by far, the tallest building in the world, and thus too prestigious to ignore. The result it that the top 50 floors are among the most expensive real-estate in existence… and much of the remaining 700 floors are vertical slums, empty, dilapidated, or all of the above. The building also has 30 subterranean levels, many of which must be maintained to keep power, water, air, and sheer-balancing systems working, but no one ever wants to live or work in them. In many cases, the billionaires who own the top of the tower fly in workers from other countries to labor n the lower levels, and use armed security to keep them from fleeing.
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So, I wrote Squimic for an adventure back in 2018. The idea was that in a grey experimental base, the PCs would find Squimic in a lab, the result of a project the grays did not yet considered a success. I wanted to introduce an NPC gun that would talk to characters and grow with whoever carried it. But, my idea was complex, untested, and would have required GMs running followup adventures to ad lib Squimic’s responses since the authors of those adventures were writing them at the same time I was, and had no idea Squimic existed and thus could not include any guidance on how it would react to the events they were writing about.
Ultimately the developers who did a great job polishing my raw text into a finished adventure simplified Squimic into a “Living Transmutation Matrix,” and I think they did the right thing. An idea can be fun and perfect for some groups without being the right fit for every adventure.
But, since that adventure came out years ago (and was released under the OGL), I feel comfortable presenting my original open content version of Squimic here, for anyone who thinks a little mimic gun buddy is a good match for their campaigns. I’ve included all the text that would have been in that adventure if they’d gone with my version, including background information on the project and how the PCs were to find and interact with Squimic, but not any of the plot points, proper nouns the publisher used, the adventure name, or any of the other material the publisher marked as Product Identity in their Open Game Content declaration.
Squimic was found in a lab where it had been consistently used by a robot to shoot troll polyps.
S.Q.U.I – Mimic
A search reveals a dirty and battered data-tag, marked SQUI-mic, with further information encoded in a small computer chip. A close examination shows it actually says “S. Q. U. I. – mimic,” though the periods and first “mi-“ were concealed by dirt. Anyone can use a comm unit in their armor, or any tier of computer, to read the full encoded information stored in the tag. This reveals it is for a Special Qualities Unified Initiative Mimic. It’s clear the project name is “Unified Initiative,” the branch of that project that created this project is the “Special Qualities” division, and the test subject is a mimic.
In fact, Squimic is the only even-partially successful prototype of a special project to create small, cybernetically-enhanced mimics that could switch between taking the form of tiny creatures (especially vermin, rodents, and pets), and useable technological devices. The grays hoped to be able to breed these creatures to serve as tools of their espionage agents, but were concerned about Squimic’s intellect and independent motivations. They hoped repeated exposure to threats that required assistance (in the form of the robot arm) would cause Squimic to “normalize” the concept of just doing what they are told.
Though Squimic is a living, sapient creature, they lack the ability to move or take most actions. Mostly they just take the form of various small arms, and shoots at things someone wielding them aims at and pulls their trigger (though Squimic can refuse to carry out such attacks if it wishes to). As a result, squimic is much closer to an item with some special rules than a creature, and is treated as such in its description.
Squimic can become any item level 1-3 small arm or basic or advanced melee weapon of light bulk or less that it is familiar with, and which uses batteries (of any capacity), darts, flares, petrol, rounds (of any kind) or scattergun shells as ammunition. It is currently familiar only with those the grays programmed into it (including all such presented in Chapter 7 of the Starfinder Core Rulebook, along with the tactical switchblade, wire garrote, personal cryospike, red star solar brand, subzero hail pistol, frost subduer, bruiser decoupler, bombard shellgun, vapor cavatation gun, bravado handcannon, and explorer handcoil from Starfinder Armory). Regardless of what kind of weapon Squimic is, they can accept any size battery, and use the battery for all ammunition usage of the weapon they are emulating (using the energy to generate darts, round, shells, and similar physical ammo as needed). Squimic can learn another weapon if it can examine one in detail over 10 minutes, and it meets all their other requirements.
Squimic can have one “ready” form they can assume as a full action (currently a vapor cavatation gun), and it can take any other form over the course of ten minutes. Squimic’s ready form can be changed with an 8-hour period of “downtime” that functions like sleep.
Squimic is currently treated as an item level 5 weapon for purposes of hardness, HP, saves, and so on. They act as though they had a tier-2 computer with an artificial personality for purpose of what skills they have and at what bonus. They count as both a weapon and an aberration for purposes of what spells and effects can function on them, and if an effect can work on both the caster may choose how to treat Squimic.
Squimic can grow in power if someone provides enough UPBs for it to eat and makes a successful Diplomacy check (DC 15 + 1.5x Squimic’s current item level). Squimic can never be of higher level than the number of ranks in Diplomacy of the character attempting to convince them to grow, and the highest item level small arm or melee weapon of light bulk they can become is always their current item level -2. Squimic’s effective computer tier is always equal to half its current item level.
Squimic can only consume raw UPBs, or functioning and fully-repaired weapons, armor, and armor upgrades. Items must have an item level no greater than Squimic’s item level +2, and if they have an item level lower than Squimic’s -2. Squimic gains only 10% of the UPB value of the item. The total UPBs Squimic consumes determines their maximum item level.
Item Level Total UPBs Consumed
Characters may well have questions for Squimic, which they answer to the best of their ability. Some typical questions and answers are detailed below.
Q: Who are you? (or What are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?)
A: “I don’t know! I woke up next to a broken tube, and everything was shaking. There was a tag on the tube marked “SQIU-mic,” so I guess my name is Squimic.”
Q: How can you become a functioning weapon?
A: “Oh, I can become all sorts of things! They just… appear. In my head. And if I think real hard, I turn into them! I… I don’t know how. Or why.”
Q: Who created you? What are your plans now? What can you tell us about this facility?
A: “I don’t know about anything outside this room. There was some sirens and explosions earlier, but I didn’t go look what made them. I have no idea where I come from, or why I was brought here, or what I am going to do next!”
Q: Why were you a plasma pistol?
A: “I kept being put in that broken case with those squirmy things, and they’d try to hit me! And there was this robot arm that would squeeze me, so I became different guns with the robot hand pulling my trigger, to see what would keep the squirmy things from hurting me, and this worked the best.”
Squimic has no hostile intent toward the PCs, though they defend themselves if attacked. They are afraid to explore beyond this room by themselves, and are unwilling to be sent anywhere on their own, but are willing to accompany the PCs, and even act as a weapon for a character as long as the PCs promise not to use them as an expendable scout or abandon them.
Squimic is happy to help, as long as the PCs treat them reasonably well (not sticking them in a bag, not using them to look around dangerous corners, and so on). Each time Squimic feels abused its attitude toward the PCs goes down one step (beginning with neutral), and it takes a Diplomacy check to improve. Squimic functions as a standard weapon for anyone they feel neutral or better towards, but refuses to function for anyone they feel unfriendly or hostile towards.
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Since people asked for it, I’m posting session notes for my Gatekeepers game for PF (index here if you want to look something up) . Here’s Part 2 for Session 1. (Part1 is here.)
The heroes have saved children from the basement of a flooding ruined tower outside the town of Tidegate. The children were apparently captured by devotees of a Bloodletter faction leftover from the Bloodletter wars of more than a century ago. The heroes want to keep the Bloodletter connection quiet as long as they can, and attempt Diplomacy to convince the children not to tell anoyone about tht part of the event.
The Diplomacy roll goes badly, but the children all claim to agree.
However, as soon as the heroes make it back to the Smoke Pine Taven, and the children see their clan patriarch, Syrkin Dale, in the great room, they rush up to him and loudly begin shouting all the details of what they saw happen.
This makes the townsfolk and shipwreck survivors in the Taven uneasy, but the councilfolk present don’t seem shocked. As the children are taken to a private room to calm down, the councilfolk tell the heroes that Bloodletter Sectarians have shown up trying to perform strange rituals every few decades. The council tends to keep it quiet, but it’s a known risk.
When the heroes mention the Sectarians seems to be waiting for them, specifically, the councilfolk note it may not have been about the PCs individually. Some Bloodletters have access to ritualistic divination, and can create situations that will bring in the elements that give them the best chance for success. So rather than “five specific townsfolk whose names we know are here!” the message might really have been “the divination indicates these are the random people who give our ritual the best chance of success!”
The PCs don’t mention their strange experiences with apparently elemental power sources, and most of the PCs don’t realize anyone but themself experienced it. Jaedyn and Morgan say each other’s Mystery Point uses and have acknowledged it to each other, but don’t mention it to anyone else.
It’s decided by the council that Hexer Hellaina will be asked to go investigate.
When the PCs go to get warm by the fire, the council-member Pottage swings by to give them some of his “Feel-Better Soup,” and at the same time quietly and in the most serious tone of voice any PC has ever heard him use, says “The Bloodletters wanted you, specifically, We’ll talk later. Be careful.” Then quickly moves away.
Several cats climb into the lap of halfling barbarian Hollyhock Stonefound, and keep her pinned in place by the fire all night.
Hexer Hellaina eventually shows up, and wishes to speak to the PCs. They tell her the general course of what happened, answering questions about the blood-drinking stone, but don’t mention the Mystery Point powers. Hellaina decides she needs to go look herself, after the storm ends, sometime the next day, and asks the PCs to go with her. They agree.
The next day the group including Hellaina have an uneventful journey back to the Ruined Tower. Hellaina does some rituals and analysis and determines that 1: The tower is the anchor for a wedge between the Mortal Realm and the Unlit World (where shadows, death spirits, and forgotten things dwell), 2: That wedge was asleep until awoken by a ritual recently, 3: Once awoken it was why the stone was drinking blood, and if it had gotten *enough* of the *right* blood, it could have forced open a full doorway between the Mortal Realm and Unlit World, and the PCs prevented this by moving the bodies of the fallen away from the tower, and 4: There must be an relic of some sort to serve as the focus for this anchor, and they need to find and destroy it.
So she gives everyone dowsing rods and explains how they work (search with Perception or Occultism, takes time), and Nambra ends up using a Red Mystery Point to reroll her check.
Well before anyone else has gotten more than a slight twitch on their dowsing, Nambra is strongly pulled to the keystone of the main door into the tower. Her dowsing rod then bursts into flame, the fire strikes the keystone and blows the front off it it, revealing it’s a hollow, lead-lined container dressed in stone, and containing a skull covered in sigils very similar to those of the Bloodletter Sectarians. Also, Hellaina notes that is NOT how the dowsing rod should work.
It’s suggested that maybe Nambra has a stronger connection to the relic because she took a critical hit and spilled the most blood on the stone before Averill telekinetically pulled her out. Hellaina is shocked Averill’s tk was strong enough, and he explained he felts a rush of power when he was straining, and Jaedyn and Morgan exchange glances. They begin to ask if everyone experienced such a thing, and Nambra confirms she had a similar rush when using the dowsing rod, and Hollyhock that she had the night before when running on top of the mud.
So Jaedyn and Morgan explain their experiences, and Hexer Hellaina finds this curious and important. She tells the PCs she’ll need to do some research ebfore she can even guess what is going on, and suggests (but does not order) that they keep their experience quiet for now.
Then she uses a ritual to destroy the relic, closing the sliver of a gap connecting the Mortal Realm and Unlit World at this location.
End of session.
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Since people asked for it, here’s part 1 of the notes for session 1 of my Gatekeepers game for PF2.
It’s early fall in Tidegate, and the storm season has been unusually bad. As we begin play, a major storm has caused a ship to wreck on the shore north of town, and most of the town council and senior people of note have gone to help survivors. As is the norm for local disasters, survivors are being brought to the Smoke Pine Taven, and all the PCs end up there to help settle people in. The many cats of the Smoke Pine are all present, but staying well out of reach of anyone.
Among other things the PCs have someone manning to Smoke Pine’s door, so they can open it to let people in but otherwise hold it closed against the wind and rain. The PC spots two councilmembers struggling towards the door – Syrkin Dale, who is clearly injured, being part-carried by Pottage (who is also struggling with a giant cauldron of his modestly famous “Feel-Better Soup”).
The PCs help them in and patch up Syrkin Dale, and determine that in the rough category of “Battle, Beast, or Debris,” the wound seems caused by debris. Syrkin explains that one of his tenant farmers’ children were last seen playing in a tower of the Old Keep outside of town, and hadn’t shown up since the storm began. Syrkin had gone to look for them, heard them calling for help from the tower’s basement saying they were tapped and the basement was flooding, but then a piece of the old tower’s structure fell on him and both injured him and blocked the only door in. Syrkin staggered to town to get help, and Pottage had spotted him and helped him in.
PCs note that Syrkin seems very annoyed Pottage is the person who found and helped him… and Pottage doesn’t seem to notice. Also, the Smoke Pine’s cats take turns coming up to and rubbing happily on Pottage.
With all the townsfolk who would normally go help already busy outside of town with the shipwreck, and a flooding basement not something that can wait to be dealt with later, the PCs decide they need to go save the children themselves. The Smoke Pine’s owner, Nana Cutthroat, gives them some gear to help, and they rush out into the storm.
The tower is up on a hill that’s a bit steep under the best of circumstances, and is a dangerous mudslide waiting to happen in the heavy rain. With some careful use of ropes and letting the most nimble PCs go up first, the group manages the ascent without incident.
The tower is a ruin, with a staircase on the outside spiraling up to the top of its 25-foot wall (the roof long-since gone), a pile of rubble on the other side making a rough but passable ramp, and a single door that does seem to be blocked by some collapsed timber. The PCs split up, with half heading toward the blocked door, and half heading to the stairs to seek an alternate way in.
As the PCs approach the blocked door, it slams down having obviously been rigged as a trap. Four sailors are just inside, all with thin leather handwraps common to sailors from the Akkaron region of the Continental Empire. One sailor has a headband, the other three have sigils freshly cut into their exposed foreheads. The headwrapped sailor yelled “They’re *all* here! Kill them!”
More foes climb up from the basement, warning children below to shut up.
Jaedyn opts to leap from the top wall down onto the new targets, a 30-foot leap. The player invokes the white Mystery Point, which allows her a good roll and Jaedyn discovers the wind is swirling around and guiding her. Morgan leaps after her, his player using a blue Mystery Point, and the rainwater water guides him. Nambra takes a critical hit from a crossbow, and is knocked out.
As the PCs defeat the sailors, they discover the stone of the tower is literally drinking up any spilled blood. The PCs begin to haul fallen bodies outside, beyond the apparent reach of the thirsty stone. Averill uses his telekinesis to pull Nambra out of the tower, so it can’t access her blood, which also required the power of a Mystery Point. However, they don’t manage to do so before enough blood gathers to form a icy blood paraelemental, which they must defeat.
Trying to get the children saved, allies patched up, and bodies moved, Hollyhock’s player expends the green Mystery Token, and the muddy ground supports her, preventing her from sinking in.
The fight is over, but the game session goes on (to be covered in Part 2).
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Since people have asked for a recap of what happened in Session 1 of my Gatekeepers game for PF2, I’m working on converting my gameplay notes to something human-readable. But those notes will make more sense if readers know who the protagonists/PCs are, so here’s a quick rundown of the primary characters in Gatekeepers.
Averill (human laborer psychic)
Averill is a telekinetic in his late teens, and his family have a long history as “lifters,” telekinetic laborers who help load and unload cargo. The family is originally from Eirsyus and Tidegate locals tend to roll their eyes a bit at the idea of using innate magic powers to carry things, but Averill’s family have been local for nearly two centuries, and despite some ribbing for being weird Westerners are well-accepted.
Hollyhock Stonefound (halfling warrior barbarian)
Hollyhock is a halfling equivalent in age to a human’s late teens. She was found in a small stone shelter on the beach near Tidegate after a major storm, and is presumed to have been a survivor of a wrecked ship though no one knows for certain. She was adopted by a family of halfling caravan guards and merchant marines, and though young has been preparing to follow in the family business. She’s dealt with bullies a time or two, and locals know that if she looks very, very calm she is about to unleash hell on someone.
Jaedyn Valis (human with some elven ancestry barkeep swashbuckler)
Jaedyn was raised the son of a woman who worked out of the Smoke Pine Taven and told his father was an elven noble who wintered in Tidegate. Jaedyn took odd jobs to help bring in income as he grew up, but his mother eventually drank herself to death. Jaedyn had no other place to go, but Nana Cutthroat was fine with Jaedyn living and working at the Smoke Pine. Now an older teen, Jaedyn worked hard and embraced this degree of freedom, and let the community know she was a woman rather than the boy her mother had presented her to be. Though Jaedyn has had no formal training, when she found a rapier in her hands the use of it and daring acrobatics to go with came to her as naturally as breathing.
Nambra (elf ranger, background currently unrevealed)
Nambra is an adult elven woman who has ranged the lands around Tidegate for decades. She prefers to be out in the wilderness with her companion bear Brôg, but spends just enough time in town for locals to think of her as one of their own. She has been approached many times by Warden Ellicent to join the Duchess of Tides’ official crown wardens, but so far has preferred to remain indepedent.
Morgan (human farmhand monk)
Morgan is an older teen who lives on one of the many farms near Tidegate, one owned and run by his father, and ex-adventurer. Morgan was subject to bullying in town as a child, but never raised a hand to defend himself. However, when Morgan saw a younger child being bullied he stepped in with the training his father had given him, and ended up dropping the bullies so severely he had to do their chores in town until they recovered. While family of the boys he put down treat him coolly, the rest of Tidesgate sees him as a young man willing to defend those in need.
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