Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Durance Meets X-Men: Days of Future Passed: An RPG Hack (Part One)

Durance is an rpg about space penal colonies. It is smart, generally diceless, and narrative-focused. I’m going use that to run a game about life in a superhero world, in particular a Mutant Prison Camp. This riffs, of course, on Chris Claremont’s amazing "Days of Future Past" storyline from Uncanny X-Men (141-142, ’81). That set up a whole series of tropes we’ve seen in other comics and stories: many later X-Men issues, Age of Apocalypse, Kang’s camps from Avengers (50-52, ’98), Layla Miller's experience in X-Factor, and even the super-prison from Kingdom Come. Durance requires some alteration to make that fit- given the shared burden for survival in the original. I’ll explain the changes below. You can see the second half of this post here

Sidebar: If any of this sounds interesting, I'm running this online for VirtuaCon on October 11th. As of this writing, I still have room for players. 

All of this is set in a new superhero world, created by a session of players from RPG Geek. You can see the full write-up of that world here. There are a few key facts to keep in mind. There's a long and ongoing history of alien invasions, many of which heavily altered parts of the world. Those invasions and the co-opting of technology pushed developments forward. We have rapid space travel and colonies by the 1960’s. Yet in many ways society’s still stuck in older social thinking and approaches. This setting takes place in the late 1980's. Mutants have become the target of fear and hate campaigns. They’re a distinct group from “Supers” in this world. Superheroes appeared earlier, perhaps at the beginning of the 20th Century and grew general acceptance. Mutants, on the other hand, began to appear in the middle of the century as a result (many suspect) of alien energies. Mutants also have powers, but most exhibit visible physical changes and oddities. They became a scapegoat and a victimized group, thrown into the mix of competing interests. A war among those with super-powers (supers and Mutants alike) hangs over the world like a shadow. Less than two decades after that war, governments moved to contain and suppress mutant populations.

That’s where we take up.

The internal logic and purpose of these camps vary from place to place, year to year. The timeline suggests an evolution with an eventual move in some places to actual population purges. But I suspect these are extreme versions. The players will have to define some of this logic. I imagine all camps begin with the desire to be self-sustaining and perhaps even productive. Whether that actually holds true in practice depends on the facility. Some camps may be about containment- keeping this dangerous population in a central and easily monitored place. Some may claim to be about safety: making sure that Mutants are not subject to persecution or attacks. Some may be about transitions- a holding place before moving inductees on to more independent off-world colonies. Rationalizations, excuses, and cover stories are a dime a dozen.

What becomes clear over time is that there is no endgame for these camps. Except for the few places where the administration establishes some kind of shared-responsibility colony, these prisons in the end. That will become clear earlier in camps run by those with a penal or military background. It may take longer for those administrators focused on scientific experimentation and public policy to realize this, but they will.

In Durance, players start by choosing details which define the planet and the colony. We will do the same, defining the location and the camp structure. Five traits define each of these. In a round, two players will each pick one trait which leans to the positive. The other three traits turn out negative. The combination of those picks give us a two letter code and tell us something about the place. After we’ve done that for the location, we’ll do the same for the camp, giving each player (in a four-player game) one choice.

The descriptions below are pretty open-ended. The group should feel free to make changes or adaptations that fit what they want out of the game. Players may “color in” more of these details during character creation.

Ten sites are available for the prison camps. Each is defined by a code for the applicable traits. The five traits are:
  • Connected (A) [Unconnected (-A)]: How much contact does the camp have with the outside world. Are there regular deliveries of goods or information? Are there nearby settlements? Do the staff & workers regularly change out?
  • Mild Atmosphere (B) [Harsh Atmosphere (-B)]: What is the climate like? A mild atmosphere means consistent temperatures and unchallenging seasons. A harsh environment can be dangerous or even deadly without the proper protection. The camp protects those inside, so long as it runs effectively.
  • Benign Biology (C) [Hostile Biology (-C)]: Are there dangerous animals in the region? Infestations of vermin? Or perhaps deadly plant-life? Or is the dangerous biology bacterial or viral, spreading infections throughout the camp?
  • Stable Systems (D) [Fragile Systems (-D)]: How solid is the life-support, waste management, and general infrastructure of the camp? Is it rock-steady? Or does it break down at a moment’s notice? Does it require constant attention to keep running?
  • Productive (E) [Unproductive (-E)]: Does the camp produce anything- goods or resources for itself or the outside world. Is it self-sustaining? Or does it rely on outside channels to maintain itself?
Desert Colony (CD)
Benign Biology, Stable Systems: Disconnected, Harsh Atmosphere, Unproductive
There's debate about which desert we're in. But you can't think about that too much. It doesn't matter. The heat, the sand, the wind, it slowly wears you down. We're far away from civilization and survive based on aerial supply drops and the yearly changing of the guard. We make nothing here- with most of the facilities simply dedicated to keeping us alive.
Island Colony (BD)
Mild Atmosphere, Stable Systems: Disconnected, Hostile Biology, Unproductive
You'd expect more storms here, maybe typhoons, but no. The island's a paradise in that regard. Perhaps that's why the flora and fauna's so dangerous. Poisonous snakes, inflaming insects, schools of sharks patrolling the waters offshore. Some xeno-beast experiments got out into the local ecosystem as well, creating even more havoc. Inside camp fortifications we survive, but that leaves us little space to provide beyond the basics.
Contaminated Zone (AB)
Connected, Mild Atmosphere: Hostile Biology, Fragile Systems, Unproductive
They used to name these zones- fallout from the battles with alien invaders. But now they just number them. We can at least communicate with the outside world, and specialists move back and forth easily. They work to figure out how to contain the evolving bio-terraforming invasion. We try to get keep that out of our quarters, but it always find a way in: destroying what we’re building, growing, preserving. Systems here break down constantly, victim to living rust and unkillable insects.
Arctic Zone (CE)
Benign Biology, Productive: Disconnected, Harsh Atmosphere, Fragile Systems
The cold never stops. It pushes us to work harder- tapping oil and mineral reserves beneath the ice. They reward us sometimes for output- fixing heaters and insulation, offering more layers we desperately need to stay warm. But when the winter comes we're on our own. Night, cold, and ice. That's all we have then.
Blocked Off City Zone (AD)
Connected, Stable: Harsh Atmosphere, Hostile Biology, Unproductive
They built walls higher than anyone had seen before to lock down the city- lining it with barb-wire, searchlights and more exotic means of control. Damaged and contaminated during an invasion, they left this city to stew and then threw us in. Stay in the protective zone. Outside things fall apart and diseases can whip through and kill off the unprotected in a day.
Space Colony (AC)
Connected, Benign Biology: Harsh Atmosphere, Fragile Systems, Unproductive
As humanity expanded into the solar system in the 1950's and 60's, they left behind older bases, some converted from alien masters. The Lunar base should have been the best cared for, but the unglamorous Moonscape drew few. It remained a traffic control and routing point for automated transits. But there's little else for us in these sterile walls. The life support systems are ancient and prone to breakdown. We can go from freezing to blazing hot in a matter of hours. It’s worse when the scrubbers back up...
Undersea Colony (BE)
Mild Atmosphere, Productive: Disconnected, Hostile Biology, Fragile Systems
We're here in the Deep-Sea Trench, a frontier ignored except to dump waste like us. On the bright side, they keep things at a steady 72 degrees and the aquaculture means that we have more than enough to survive and even thrive. But we have little contact with the outside world, even when the systems break down- and they do, often. Add to that experimental oceanic beasts and weird strains of flu which sweep through, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Terraforming Colony (DE)
Stable Systems, Productive: Disconnected, Harsh Atmosphere, Hostile Biology
We took the techniques the alien invaders used over generations and turned them against other planets in our solar system. It didn't turn out exactly as we'd planned. We're self-sustaining, but we have to keep to the confines of the camp. Outside the Martian atmosphere can bleed through from time to time. And more importantly there are the things they grew: wicked beasts and plants transformed by experimental terraforming. They say they'll get it right next time...
Abandoned Station (BC)
Mild Atmosphere, Benign Biology: Disconnected, Fragile Systems, Unproductive
They abandoned this station in the 1970s. It still stinks of cigarette smoke. Some say it smells like a motel. It was state of the art at the time, filtering air and biohazards and keeping us safe. But there's a delicate balance, with much of the plant life dedicated to sustaining things. And this station is old. It has cracks where there shouldn't be any. We ask for parts and replacements, but they don't make them anymore. And the infrequent supply deliveries focus on more basic goods like food and restraints.
Asteroid/Mining Colony (AE)
Connected, Productive: Harsh Atmosphere, Hostile Biology, Fragile Systems
Some think we have it good. Reliable connections to the outside world. Regular supply drops from ships. Luxury goods made available and more things moving through the black market. But the mines here will kill you. They're dangerous and the systems can't keep up with the dirt, grime, and breakdown. New mutant illnesses can run amok before the medtechs know what to do. Pressure leaks and erratic climate controls can weaken you. And the systems break down constantly.

  • Well Planned (V) [Chaotic Design (-V)]: Refers to the intelligent arrangement of dwellings, structures and services within the camp. Was the camp built to order or laid atop existing structures? How quickly was it created and with what kind of foresight?
  • Low Density (W) [Packed In (-W)]: Refers to the land footprint, and living area within it, occupied by the camp. Are the camp dwellers stacked in like cordwood? How tightly arranged are the various barracks and facilities? What about the staff and administration- how close are they?
  • Decent Treatment (X) [Poor Treatment (-X)]: Refers to the general amenities of the camp. Is there good access to decent food and water? What about other supplies and goods? Does everyone have access to luxuries or is everything stark? What’s the upkeep like on these goods? Is the populace used for involuntary experimentation?
  • Order (Y) [Disorder (-Y)]: Refers to the compliance and docility of the camp population. It also considers the level of crime and exploitation among the populace. Are gangs allowed to run things completely or does the administration turn a blind eye? Are they corrupt?  
  • Justice (Z) [Injustice (-Z)]: Refers to the colony’s rule of law and its just enforcement. Does the administration consider itself subject to rules? Or are the guards and staff given to arbitrary treatment, abuse, and petty vindictiveness?
Camp Bendis (VW)
Well Planned, Low Density: Poor Treatment, Disorder, Injustice
Delays in the elaborate construction and repair plans meant that they've been pushing prisoners to the breaking point. They run crews round the clock according to exacting schedules. Outside of that prisoners lead a chaotic life, with little oversight. Little comes down from the top to the populace, with the Guards either keeping or black market selling anything other than the basics. The lack of observation has allowed gangs and rival cabals to form among the inmates.
Camp Claremont (VX)
Well Planned, Decent Treatment: Packed In, Disorder, Injustice
Whoever planned this camp loved straight lines and balance. Everything's organized in a logical repeating pattern…of narrow paths, tight corridors, and packed-in living quarters. It means better distribution of resources and the ability to have some personal effects. But it makes the guards nervous. They're just as packed-in and react to everything with a heavy hand. The experimental programs are non-voluntary and constant. Things will eventually get pushed too far.
Camp Ditko (VY)
Well Planned, Ordered: Packed In, Poor Treatment, Injustice
They call it the Panopticon, a theory of constant observation and enforcement. There's no privacy, no place to hide here. Everyone has a place they need to be at a regulated time. Any deviation results in reduction of supplies. Everyone must match their quota or suffer the penalties. It keeps the in-fighting and criminal element down, as they're in as desperate straits as anyone else.
Camp Millar (VZ)
Well Planned, Justice: Packed In, Poor Treatment, Disorder
Prisoners here live in carefully managed blocks. They're shifted and moved between them in response to statistical read-outs, six-month plans, and experimental demands. Despite that, prisoners are treated even-handedly- with equal justice and some staff devoted to managing problems. But they don't live in the dense blocks and they don't see the in-fighting, the gangs, and the killing.
Camp Gerber (WX)
Low Density, Decent Treatment: Chaotic Design, Disorder, Injustice
We're not packed together, but only because they cobbled this camp together out of bits and pieces. On the one hand that means that they don't clamp down on our lives. We have some privacy, mostly due to ignorance. We avoid interactions with the guards, scientists, and staff. They fear and lash out at anything- realizing the potential danger in the disorganization of this place. Instead they leave us alone, to be governed by ourselves and the growing criminal underground.
Camp Byrne (WY)
Low Density, Ordered: Chaotic Design, Poor Treatment, Injustice
Everyone has space here. Enough room to live, but not to move around. If you move too much you begin to see the cracks and seams of this place. We're watched constantly and the guards sweep through from time to time- breaking up criminal activity, gangs, and networks. They want us isolated and quiet. Everyone in their right place, simply sitting and waiting for the end.
Camp Gaiman (WZ)
Low Density, Justice: Chaotic Design, Poor Treatment, Disorder
It seems like there's more scientists, experimenters, and researchers here than guards. The poke and prod us- keeping us on restricted diets, forcing us through courses, drawing every kind of fluid. There's no method to the madness of this sprawling complex, with more and more given over to these tests. The guards and wardens are at least fair- even handed and perhaps even sympathetic to our plight. But they're not around at night when the gangs and criminals make demands and establish their control.
Camp Kirby (XY)
Decent Treatment, Ordered: Chaotic Design, Packed In, Injustice
They feed us well and we're given access to more than a few luxuries. But that's a distraction from the hodge-podge set-up of this place. We're packed in so tightly, with rooms and districts desperately restructured and repurposed. They track us closely- keeping an eye out for any form of organization or criminal activity. That's because the guards want to keep that in their hands- exploiting, taking bribes, and ruling everyone's lives with an iron fist.
Camp Morrison (XZ)
Decent Treatment, Justice: Chaotic Design, Packed In, Disorder
There's a tight lid on this place. They've worked hard to present a bright face to inspectors and observers. We have more than enough to live on and the administration regularly doles out bonuses for good behavior. The guards maintain order without excessive brutality and some have said they're even responsive to concerns. But they live outside the Warrens, the cells and dense barracks we're kept in. They know the score and leave alone the worst parts of the maze-like cell blocks. Instead others among the imprisoned mutants rule here. And they aim to kept their power and control. 
Camp Moore (YZ)
Ordered, Justice: Chaotic Design, Packed In, Poor Treatment
Some call it the Hive, and perhaps there was symmetry and order at the start but that's broken down in madness and chaos now with each further alteration. We're packed in here, and kept in line with minimal rations and little access to recreation. Days can go by without seeing the light. The guards and administration are quiet and yet ever present. They don't persecute. Instead they strike surgically in the night. They cut out trouble-makers and the worst of those who abuse their fellows. And then they vanish back into their own sealed sections.

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