Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Avatar Redaction Convergence: A DramaSystem Pitch

The RPG Geek/Pelgrane Press DramaSystem contest announced winners yesterday, you can see the results here. I didn't win, but that's cool since I can repurpose and post my entry here. The contest had some outstanding submissions. My two favorites, in the sense that as I read them I knew they'd work at the table, were Monster's Brawl and Strange Frequencies. I highly recommend you download and check those out. My own submission, as I mentioned in my brainstorming post, presents my attempt to figure out a way to do the "split formula" of weird urban fantasy settings which have a strong dramatic component and a parallel rich action side (Persona, Neon Genesis Evangelion). I'm not sure I've cracked that nut, but I hope it has some material other GMs find useful. 

When their friends seem to be “written out” of reality, a group of teens search for answers and find themselves caught in the otherworldly Hunger Station.

In a near-future Neo-Kyoto (or insert other suitably anime city) strangeness grips the city. Hallucinatory visions, panic-inducing rumors, and a mysterious illness that only seems to target those with green eyes. As fear and unease takes hold, a group of students of the Yojinbukai International Institute discover a stranger pattern. Classmates, teachers, and staff have begun to vanish- with no one recalling them…except this handful of teens.
When their questions fall of deaf ears, this group reluctantly bands together. But these leads only further down the rabbit hole. Touched by the secret forces working behind the scenes, they find themselves thrust into Hunger Station. Granted strange powers they must battle through this nightmarish metropolis to rescue their vanished friends, uncover the source of these events, and simply survive.

Now they have to balance the demands of these adventures with their daily life: navigating the world of high school relationships, parental demands, and adult disbelief even as they try to puzzle together what’s happening to them.

Avatar Convergence Redaction splits into two parts. The first is the day-to-day life of the PCs in Neo-Kyoto trying to reconcile the strange with their ambitions, desires, and personal conflicts. We use DramaSystem to simulate this. The second is their exploration of Hunger Station, armed with unique powers. We will use the 13th Age’s “Archmage Engine” for this. I cover each in their own section below, along with notes on the transition between them.

Avatar Convergence Redaction is a love-letter to the Shin Megami Tensei series (including Nocturne, Persona, Soul Hackers, Devil Survivor, and Digital Devil Saga). At the same time it borrows from anime and manga stories combining relationships with high strangeness (Stein’s Gate, Utena, Alien Nine, Volcano High, and Tomie among others). Two works especially shape my vision of this setting: Boogiepop Phantom and Paranoia Agent. A couple of rpgs could serve as useful resources for the high strangeness of Hunger Station: Itras By and Don’t Rest Your Head.

Drama System stories build on collaboration between the players and the GM. The players call most of the scenes and establish most of the relevant details. The GM helps to adjudicate, handles the challenges of procedural moments, and throws twists from time to time. But generally the players control the direction of the plot. So how do we add in Big Mysteries to a plot? Shows such as Lost, Cult, and The Flash set up big season-long problems for revelation. The ACN set-up has some of that built in, so how do we handle that?

It’s important to talk with your group when you start a campaign, ask them if they want a big mystery running through things. Talk about the options, either one of those presented below or another variation. Some groups may not want a distraction from the dramatic interplay of their characters. GMs will also want to consider how their group has handled mysteries (big or little) in other games. Were some players engaged, but not others? Did they give up on the mystery?

Player Created “Puzzle Pieces”
Once the group has established the setting, the big mystery should be evident- to the players if not to the characters. Usually that’s some version of “What’s Really Going On?” In the case of Avatar Redaction Convergence, we have sub-questions about that:
  • Why are their fellow students being “edited out” of the world? How is this being done and how can it be reversed?
  • What is the nature of Hunger Station and the powers they have there?
  • What’s the connection between this and other strangeness happening?
  • Who or what is behind this and how can it be stopped?

Naturally scenes during play will touch on this, and facts will be established. But each session one player gets to offer a big puzzle piece through a narrated scene- usually as a coda on the session. The group should rotate this responsibly and establish each session who will handle it for the next. This coda scene can involve secondary characters and incidents outside the view of the PCs. The player may include their own character is they wish. But usually these scenes introduce a new twist into the larger story.

Puzzle Piece scenes show us some new element: X is actually a robot, Y destroys evidence, a hidden figure sets a prisoner free, an strange object is buried or revealed in the dark of night. You may have seen these kinds of scenes in Fringe, X-Files, and Arrow. The player’s under no obligation to explain the meaning of these bits. By making the usual coda explicitly about these, the group keeps the mystery in a more limited space. Players may bounce of elements of that coda in the following session, perhaps to reveal more about it and bring it into the dramatic tension (mutual suspicion over who freed the prisoner, stole the object, destroyed the evidence).

These twists establish a canon for the mystery. Later elements should be careful not to negate these facts. They can reframe them, reveal additional information about them, or show why they weren’t exactly as we imagined them to be. (i.e. “It was actually his twin brother”). Avoid gonzo versions of this unless you want a fully anime feel.

GM Drive “The Twist”
On the other hand, the players may place responsibility for these twists in the hands of the GM. This gives the GM a little more responsibility and chance for improvisation. The GM should avoid sketching everything out about “The Big Picture”. Instead they should follow the methods of The Armitage Files where the GM improvises and adjusts the mystery in response to the characters’ actions and the players’ interests.

While the secret should be engaging and interesting, GMs should keep a couple of things in mind. That mystery and the process of discovery shouldn’t dominate a session. Keep it small, usually to one or two scenes. Where possible connect those revelations with dramatic incidents- sparking changes or coming out of a clash between characters. Importantly, the secret’s revelation shouldn’t undercut or negate the character’s choices. That’s more fuzzy, but if the group’s been playing towards particular dramatic stakes, they should be tied to the secret.

The basic tension of the “real world” side lies high school dramatics: rivalries, infatuations, ambitions, and a desperate search for identity. Players should discuss tone: realistic, more anime, or somewhere in-between (ala Buffy). The paranormal elements should complicate these things: straining relationships, labeling the PCs as troublemakers, and creating misunderstandings.

The characters know that a handful of persons (students, teachers, staff) have vanished—but no one they talk to recalls them. Physical evidence still exists for these persons, but authority figures hand wave these away or rationalize them as something else. Each player should come up with the name, background, and their connection to one of the missing persons.

The group should decide if they want to begin with the characters already linked by their shared knowledge or if that should be played out in session one. Regardless, that first session will revolve around the characters connections with each other and their ties to the vanished.

  • Where is Neo-Kyoto (or other name)? America? Japan? England?
  • What’s unique about the city? Is it a highly automated or a rustbelt? Is it a crossroads?
  • What unique natural features or locations define it?
  • What’s the Institute like? Is it advanced and layered with shining chrome? Old, storied, and gothic?
  • Is the institute managed by exacting taskmasters or by an apathetic administration?
  • What kinds of students go there? Luck-of-the-draw assignees? Children of the elite? Cast off problem students?

Characters can be classic high-school tropes- American or anime.
  • Foreign “Fish Out of Water” Student
  • Silent Athlete
  • Military Obsessed Otaku
  • Computer Nerd
  • Student Council President
  • Aspiring Musician
  • Latchkey Wallflower
  • Tragic Orphan
  • Misunderstood Bully
  • Gifted Natural Who Secretly Struggles
  • Mysterious Transfer
  • Middle Sibling
  • Club Manager
  • Duty-Bound Daughter
  • Fragile Survivor
  • Secret Celebrity
  • Cynical Diva
  • Uncertain Psychic
  • Family Caretaker
  • Enthusiastic Booster

Outsider/Insider: Characters desperately want to be on one side the other. The new weirdness and their knowledge may push characters away from their moorings.
Absent Friends: The vanished may have been important- how do they fill that gap.
Stupid Authorities: No one will believe them. And even talking about the strangeness may get them label as a troublemaker or in need of medication.
Adult Supervision: The incidents strain the relationship between characters and their parents or caretakers. How do they evade control and the watchful eyes.
Denial: Ignoring what’s happening may seem like a ready solution.
Infatuation and Confession: Love can be keenly felt, hidden, expressed, and rejected. Each of these will feel like the end of the world.
Bad For You: Your peers and romantic interests often are your worst enemies.
Whispering Campaigns: Rumors may or may not have a supernatural power, but they possess a destructive force in high school.
Ambitions: These mysteries are a roadblack and distraction for those who have their future already mapped out.
The Wrong Crowd: You didn’t choose these companions. What will your friends say?
School Days: They’re still going to school, meaning Group Projects, Field Trips, Festival Days, Clubs, and High-Stakes Tests.

Revelations and secrets exposed will increase the tension. But additional twists can make things even more scary and raise the stakes.

...The parent or caretaker of one of the PCs vanishes and no one remembers them.
...They're spotted in their investigations, making life more difficult through grounding, house arrest, or other limitations.
....A target of affection begins to behave oddly or irrationally- indicating a hidden secret.
....They encounter rivals from another school who seem to share their talents but have other agendas.
....One of the Vanished returns, and once again no one seems to notice it. But the returnee doesn’t behave as they did before.
...They see creatures from Hunger Station in the real world.
...The vanishings accelerate as the city slowly becomes an unreal ghost-town.

Hunger Station is a phantasmal otherworld of darkness and nightmares the players will enter. It looks like a half-built modern city, with the unfinished sections echoing the architecture and state of endless other places- some decaying, some futuristic, others incomprehensible. The city has other analogues- a ghost tram system, amusement plazas filled with masked figures, and strange hooded sanitation workers rolling silently along the streets.

When the players enter into Hunger Station, the game switches to a dungeon crawler. This uses a variation of 13th Age as mentioned above. In Hunger Station, the PCs will see signs and echoes of the Vanished they know. In order to rescue them, the party must enter into the prisons holding them. There they will fight unnatural creatures and try to overcome the self-inflicted bonds used to restrain the Vanished.

But the players are not simply helpless, instead they possess powers gifted to them, called Avatars.

When the players first enter Hunger Station, they will be contacted by a mysterious force calling itself Arcana. It will draw out from the characters an inner vision of their own heroic nature. While hunting for their missing friends and loved ones in the dungeons, these Avatars grant them powers and a unique appearance.

In practical terms, each player will build a 13th Age character, with a few changes. There are no racial options or feats. Background points should be reflective of the character’s Action Types from the DramaSystem side of things. Icons exist, but slightly modified and with different uses and implications. Characters begin at Level 1. Players should probably talk about the composition of the party and come up with a unique name for their Avatar reflecting their outlook and its powers.

Keep in mind that players will have to reframe some of the fluff from these powers for the new context.

The following classes will work most easily: Barbarian, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, and Wizard. Other classes will require some retooling for Icon feats (Bard) and Backgrounds (Rogue) but could also work. The Commander, Druid, Monk, and Necromancer from 13 True Ways could also be used, but will also require some reframing and restrictions. I’d leave out the Chaos Mage, Occultist, and Multiclassing from available options.

Depending on what the players want, GMs could alternate one session in Neo-Kyoto and one session in Hunger Station. Events in Hunger Station should involve a little bit of color set up and travel through the weird landscape, ending at one of the “dungeons.” Each dungeon is a manifestation of the particular Vanished’s memories, hopes, and fears. Built the atmosphere off of that. Take advantage of the opportunity to reveal character elements for the Vanished and for PCs connected to them. You can easily tie puzzles and traps to these emotional details. The players will fight through monsters, which can be easily reskinned from the book into weird psychic manifestations. Each dungeon should have a boss linked to the Vanished and to the Dramatic Poles of one or more PCs. So an end boss might showcase feelings like Guilt, Anger, or Envy.

The players might not make it through a dungeon in one session. Decide if you’re comfortable splitting that over two. Generally you shouldn’t stretch that out any longer to avoid shifting the emphasis away from the Drama. Adventures in Hunger Station should be a reward- with easier questions or right & wrong. If they haven’t finished a dungeon and you don’t want to split things, have the PCs tumble out of the Station back into the real world. They can reenter later at the point they departed.

Each delve should be aimed at a rescue, and should also offer at least one significant revelation about the big picture plot.

Given that players will have a Full Rest between explorations, consider cutting the number of PC recoveries in half. Go low to start, as you can offer more as a reward later.
Since the explorations of Hunger Station happen infrequently, consider upping player advancement. The characters might gain a level after every delve or every other one. You can tune this as you play further.

If the players lose, they can withdraw. Such a loss should translate into permission to tighten the screws in the real world. Perhaps they suffer some physical effects- illness, exhaustion, visible wounds- which complicate their lives in the real world.

If you’ve introduced a rival group of students in the Neo-Kyoto side of things, consider making them adversaries in a delve.

Players only have real access to their Avatars in Hunger Station. However, GMs may want to allow the PCs some minor echoes of those in Neo-Kyoto, especially as the campaign progresses. They can use those to support dramatic declarations or narrative editing.
Magic items can be a reward for the characters, but should probably bind to a character’s avatar when they take it up. That means they cannot be passed to another. One-use items are less important given infrequency of delves.

The players should fall into Hunger Station via weird events and coincidence (they meet up after hours and cross over, they find a portal when they stay in the school to look for ghosts, they discover a unique item). Ideally this should be a coda scene for the first session. After that, returning to the Station should require all of the group. The process should be weird enough that they can’t easily share it with others (perhaps they have to be alone). If they have to do it after dark, this means they’ll have to create cover stories and sneak out of their homes to meet up. This can be used to create complications at first, but shouldn’t become a major barrier to moving the story forward. How they cross over could be a good things for the players to come up with together.

GMs may want to leave out Icons from 13th Age for simplicity. On the other hand, these could be used and tied to both sides of the campaigns. Icons in Avatar Redaction Convergence take the form of personifications of different passions, drives or emotional states. Each takes the form of one of the figures from the Higher Arcana of the Tarot. I’ve only listed twelve below- perhaps there are others, tied to rivals or other forces. Perhaps there’s both a standard and an inverted form to these figures?

Note that theses definitions don’t reflect the actual meanings of these cards in the classic tarot. Tweak these as necessary.
  • The Fool: Innocence, Luck, Virginity
  • The Magician: Esoteric wisdom, craft, or skill. Weirdness and mystery.
  • The High Priestess: Faith, hope, charity.
  • The Empress: Command, respect, center of attention, admiration.
  • The Emperor: Desire for power, ambition, envy, jealousy.
  • The Hierophant: Knowledge, expertise, arrogance.
  • The Lovers: Infatuation, affection, desire.
  • The Charioteer: A figure of rage, anger, force, and destruction.
  • The Hermit: Isolation, loneliness, driving others away.
  • The Hanged Man: Depression, self-destruction, self-doubt.
  • The Devil: Manipulation, seduction, duplicity
  • Death: Change, transformation, restructuring.

As with standard Iconic Relations, players can have Positive, Negative, or Conflicted relationships to these forces. A player’s Dramatic Poles should connect to that. Perhaps a character’s trying to battle against their own Self-Destructive impulses, so they might have a negative relation to The Hanged Man. Or perhaps they resent their parent’s work as a doctor and the time they spend on that. They might be conflicted about The High Priestess. I’d suggest rolling Icon checks at the start of each entry into Hunger Station.

Icons on Hunger Station side can be used concretely. These forces might offer assistance, information, or items of power. Alternately, you may allow players to use these as “rerolls” if they can explain how their emotional connection to the Icon pushes them to succeed. If a player rolls a “5” for their Iconic relationship, then things become a little more interesting. The cost for such aid doesn’t appear on Hunger Station side of things, but in the real world. They create an “Obligation.”

Obligations have to be cleared before the next delve into Hunger Station, or else they burn up a players’ recoveries (leaving them only one, unless they had more than one obligation, in which case they start with zero). Obligations can be cleared by introducing complications related to that Icon’s aspect to a dramatic interaction, either another player or an NPC. Essentially these complications should up the stakes, permit crazy misreadings, or generally make life worse for the obliged character. Obligations could also be read as pushing a character to deal with their feelings or help someone else deal with theirs. The group should negotiate and agree when an obligation has been cleared.

In some ways, the 13th Age mechanics overwrite a good deal of the procedural material. So how do we handle Procedural Actions on the Neo-Kyoto side. In general, keep those as simple as possible. If it’s an investigation bit, “GUMSHOE” it- give information, but allow the players to spend Drama Tokens for additional information or details. For other conflict, go as simply as possible. The Pelgrane site offers some alternate rules for handling such resolutions. Consider connecting Icon relationships to this if you’re using those. Players can succeed by burning a 5 or 6 roll- but the results have to be colored by the particular Icon used. 

My earlier pitches for Malign UniversalA War on Christmas, and Changeling the Lost. 

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