So, I got started on Game Chef (as the previous post shows), and then suffered from a critical shortage of interest in pursuing the concept. While I think there’s something to be done there, I just wasn’t excited about it.
My other personal project that was active at the time may have had something to do with it. I’m looking forward to DC Game Day and I’ve been thinking about running an Inception-inspired game, making use of some mechanical ideas from Don’t Rest Your Head (but, essentially, a new system). So that’s where I spent my design juice instead.
Last night, I got to use Skype voice to run a playtest of the system. It has some flaws, but perhaps not too many, and I think I can tune to minimize them if not eliminate them. I think, for one, I gave the default dice for the GM a too-potent size; d8’s might have been more appropriate than d10’s. Other stuff like that. Fiddle fiddle, tune tune. (This *might* turn into a Thing, and regardless still doesn’t qualify as completely baked, so I am not ready to make the rules widely publicly available yet.)
Prior to the Skype session I shot emails around with the folks who I’d be running for, getting them to do some character creation and mission assembly. Here’s the team:
Morgan: “Martin Road”. Mission architect, would rather live in dreams than in real life. Devoted to the team, the mission, haunted by clocks. Architect: 2, Athlete: 1, Sentinel: 1, Baggage d8
Dave: “Colin Farley”. Grifter. A bit paranoid/cautious now; projections take extra notice of him, obstacles arise that encourage risk taking. Grifter: 2, Sentinel: 1, Baggage d6
E (geeksdreamgirl): “Winnie Monroe”. Thief, has an incurable STD in real life so tends to play it pretty sexually active in the dream-space. That’s how she gets her fix. She’s haunted by her children-that-never-were. Thief: 2, Forger: 1, Baggage d6
Daniel: “Badger”. High-functional schizophrenic, tends to attract a lot of attention from projections, but very good at creating confounding mazes at a moment’s notice. Badger’s baggage tends to reshape the landscape, dangerously. Architect: 2, Forger: 2, Baggage d8
Robb: “Kasper Heinrich Fredrick Meyer III”. Consummate soldier. Follows orders and covers his team. Great with firearms. But he’s haunted by his dead brother. Soldier: 2, Architect: 1, Athlete: 1, Baggage d8
The size of that “baggage” die indicates how much subconscious baggage the character is bringing to the mission (smaller is less, and better; but you can have more talent points if you take on more baggage). Everyone took at least some, and knowing gamer psychology about one-shots, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the majority of them took maximum starting baggage, but I was surprised, a little.
Once the characters were established and their relationships set, it was time to figure out who the target is, and what the nature of the mission is:
WHO IS THE TARGET: The Old Man. Harrison Carter. Originator of the Program. You all know him at least passingly, if not more closely, and vice-versa.
WHO IS THE CLIENT: Freda Carter. His wife. She’s terrified of what Harrison Carter is capable of, and wants to disappear from his life. (She won’t countenance murder, and besides, there’s too great of a chance of that failing with someone like Carter.) Taking care of the paperwork side of that is not so difficult; it’s dealing with Harrison’s tenacity and personal knowledge of her that’s tricky. So she needs someone to go into his mind and make him forget the crucial piece of information that will tell him where she’s running to.
They also needed to figure out what the levels of dream were for the target. A lot of discussion happened around this; ultimately it was settled that they would sell Carter the idea that someone had infiltrated his dream in order to traumatize him, and then convince him it was his wife, and then to bury (literally, in the dream) some crucial thoughts of her in the deepest dream, as a way of protecting himself from the psychic intrusion (thereby burying the crucial knowledge away).
A sixth team member was added, my friend Matt, playing “Tom Crewes”, the verifier that Mrs. Carter wanted to come along on the mission in order to make sure it was complete. Unknown to the rest of the crew, I talked to Matt on the side and told him that he was a) likely Mrs. Carter’s lover, and b) had the ulterior motive of making sure that Harrison Carter and the team he helped create got buried down under the psychic bedrock and not to emerge. Matt decided to play this subtle and didn’t step up as Crewes a whole lot during the mission… the better to strike when folks had forgotten he was there.
I also gave them “Bob, the Chemist”, an NPC who was going to take care of the first layer of the dream, much like the chemist in the movie did.
Speaking of the dream-layer plan:
Level 1: The Lighthouse (Dreamer: Bob the Chemist). Here, they sell the idea that Carter has been taken deep into his subconscious (hence the nearby ocean) and that they are his militarized projections here to help him claw his way back out. The scene is supposed to start mundanely enough, only to have a serious attack of induced surreality a la Badger. (Badger was recruited because of his mental issues; in the Program, they call him a weaponized psyche.)
Level 2: The Train Loop (Dreamer: Kasper Meyer). On a circular track, a train travels through a mountain range meant to evoke Carter’s honeymoon. An encounter with his “wife” (Winnie) will be arranged, and leveraged to sell the idea that his attackers are using her/working with her to get at Carter.
Level 3: The Mansion Party (Dreamer: Colin Farley). A gala event in a big mansion with a big basement. Here, the team gets Carter to bury the memory of where he first met his wife in the basement, bricking her up in a For The Love Of God Montressor style, thereby achieving the mission.
Here’s a writeup of what happened; I’m definitely leaving some parts out, but hopefully this puts across the gist.
I opened the game with them trying to get access to Carter. I goofed a little and didn’t have everyone roll all the dice they were supposed to in these “initiation-ala-Dogs” scenes, but it all worked out despite that.
First, Winnie talked with the wife and studied some wedding footage to get enough of an understanding of her to “forge” her in the dream. Then Colin ran the con on Carter: he had a great opportunity that might win them both diplomatic immunity in Hong Kong, but his contact had to meet with Carter Right Now. Ushered up to the loft apartment where the abduction was planned, they passed by Kasper and Badger who were hanging back at a convenience store. Badger’s challenge was, simply, to keep it together and not screw the mission by having an “episode”; Kasper helped him with this (or more to the point, kept him from running out into the street and screaming at Carter at an inopportune moment). Up at the loft, Colin stepped into the room only to be knocked unconscious by a masked man (Crewes). Martin then made his move to apprehend Carter, but Carter is still a spry ex-intel guy and managed to sock Martin and make a run for it. Carter ran into Kasper, ordered Kasper to cover his retreat, and then got knocked down by Kasper when he turned his back on him. The team had him sedated and began the dream in short order.
At the Lighthouse, the mission had a slow but reasonably effective start; Badger trapped Carter in the stairwell to the top, then set up the circumstance for the team to present as Carter’s supporting projections while they fended off the actual projections in the form of crack commandos in rubber boats (Kasper shot the rafts, stranding them out in the middle of the ocean, despite his brother manifesting as one of the boat captains), and the fake projections from Badger who attacked under a melting sky, piloting modern Somali pirate boats but dressed like they were from a pirate movie. Clues as to his wife’s involvement were then inserted (“this was our song at our wedding”), and in that moment they got Carter to agree to go under to a second dream, to try to dig into what was going on.
This put them on the Train. In short order and possibly thanks to Martin Road being haunted by countdown clocks (his baggage), they discovered some bombs planted on the train, putting them under time pressure (15 minutes!). They went to the dining car and found Carter’s “wife” there in her honeymoon outfit. A strange conversation ensued where Carter vigorously refused the food she tried to offer him (thinking it was a trick), but cementing the notion that someone was working with/as his wife to get something out of him. He conferred with the team briefly, only to see his wife make a break for it. They gave chase.
Winnie/wife got a short distance ahead, only to have some of Carter’s projections show up to intercept the team chasing her. Badger picked up on this and rearranged the train a bit, inserting an old 1930’s circus car complete with caged animals in between the team’s and Winnie’s cars. The projections didn’t pay Winnie much mind (she didn’t read as hostile), so naturally Winnie stripped buck naked and tried encouraging them to join her. (Took a successful die roll, but she did manage to peel at least a few of them off with this gambit.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the team couldn’t find their way out of the circus car, so had to take a ladder to the roof of the train. They got up there, only to find one of Carter’s projections coming up through the roof of Winnie’s car. That’s when something happened at the Lighthouse level and caused the entire scene to tilt forward; as Kasper began sliding down the train towards the projection, he tried to make an attack of it, but the projection was fast, got in a shot at him and causing Kasper to pitch over the side, grabbing on at the last moment. Carter was next in line and got grabbed and yanked inside the train car. As the team regrouped up top, Carter — thanks to the successful con — attacked the projection that pulled him in and took him out. Then he saw that his “wife” was amorously engaged with several other men, and shot them too, and started yelling at her, eventually getting to the gun-in-face “WHO ARE YOU?!” moment they’d been building towards.
Badger pulled another trick, running the train through a dark tunnel, and letting Winnie/wife escape during one of the pitch-black moments. Colin helped cement the con then with Carter, getting Carter to suggest that they capture his “wife” and go into her head in order to put this psychic intrusion to rest. Per the plan, they caught up with Winnie shortly, put her under, and brought Carter along. Kasper was left behind to act as overwatch (and he couldn’t go deeper because the train was his dream anyway).
This put them in the mansion party. Crewes and Badger peeled off to set up some “clues” to guide Carter towards the burial plan, while Martin and Colin stayed with Carter to shepherd him towards the necessities. Winnie/wife also got into position. This is of course when Crewes sprung the trap, and used his alone-time with Badger to trigger Badger’s psychosis. As Colin, Martin, and Carter headed to the basement, Badger snapped, started melting the scenery, and shrieked at Crewes to shut up, bludgeoning him to death with a hammer. Martin, seeing this scene, summarily shot Badger in the head. Winnie lock picked a door that was trying to bite her (thanks to Badger) and tried to push the mission forward as Carter’s wife again; Colin did his best to get Carter on board with bricking her up per the plan. Despite certain “spongy scenery” issues thanks to what Badger did, this got going…
… but up on the Train level, Crewes woke up and told Kasper that Badger had freaked out and was causing havoc. Kasper stayed on mission: was the mission complete? No? Then he wasn’t going to administer the Kick. Crewes decided it was a better idea to complete his betrayal on the Lighthouse level, though, and so he shot himself in the head in order to migrate up. This also convinced Kasper it was time to pull the emergency brake since Crewes is supposed to verify mission success; if he’s checked out, then he can’t, so, mission failure. Kasper started towards the end of the car that has the brake …
… and Badger wakes up behind him, still freaking, and starts making the train impossible: fused cars, doors into sleeper cabins that instead open up in to other cars, all in an effort to hole up and “encyst” himself in the train’s architecture so he can be safe. This confounds Kasper’s ability to pull the brake, so he tries to make it back to Badger and, having a bit of Architect in his Talents as well, gets into an “architect duel” with Badger. It goes horribly wrong (the dice said neither of them won, but the Threat from the GM did), and they rip the train apart, sending their car hurtling along faster than ever and rattling itself apart …
… triggering an earthquake down on the mansion level. Martin shouts at Carter to finish bricking in his wife (he needs to complete this task for mission success), but then gets promptly buried under a section of collapsed ceiling. Colin takes up the call, and crucially pushes Carter out of the way of a hunk of ceiling, getting half-buried himself instead. Carter finishes bricking her in. He gets crushed. Winnie checks out a la gun. Colin is stranded behind in his dream, unable to get to the means to check himself out …
… while everyone else wakes up in the hurtling train car of doom. “DID YOU PULL THE BRAKE?” shouts Martin. “CAN’T. BADGER HID IT!” says Kasper. Martin has an idea: he claws and runs to the front of the car, and then looks under the front lip of it. Sure enough, yet another bomb is present there. Martin mashes the BIG RED BUTTON, detonating the bomb and himself. The car pitches forward, and…
… that “kick” travels down to the mansion level, spinning the room that Colin is in, getting him unburied. Broken and bleeding he reaches for a gun that’s clattering around, puts it to his head and …
… wakes up in the train car, which tumbles and crashes and …
… everyone wakes up in the Lighthouse, where the doors are barricaded, pirates are pounding on the door and trying to scale the exterior walls. Crewes smiles at them all, says, “Mrs. Carter sends her regards,” then shoots Bob (whose dream the Lighthouse is) and himself (checking out).
I left the game there with an open question as to whether the team would make it out, or drop into Limbo, putting an end to Carter and the products of his former Program.