Let’s Read Planescape: Monstrous Compendium Appendix I (and the Outer Planes Appendix)

There were ultimately three monster books released for the Planescape setting, the Planescape Monstrous Compendiums I-III. They eschew the product numbering of the rest of the Monstrous Compendium line, which was a mess anyway. The first printing of the AD&D 2E Monstrous Manual was a big binder with loose-leaf monster entries, running off the idea that additional monster supplements could just be slipped in and you’d have all your monsters in the same place. While I like the idea, they’d have needed something in place to address the issue of new monsters that fall alphabetically between two creatures that are on different sides of the same sheet. Anyway, by the time this book rolled around, that concept was dead and buried, and thus in 1994 we got this lavishly illustrated 128-page book and its sequels. Well, by the time this book rolled around the second time.

A lot of Planescape Monstrous Compendium Volume 1 — or PSMC1 — is actually recycled content from 1991’s MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “nearly all”. There’s a convenient Wikipedia page that lists the critters and where they’re originally from (while it’s generally bad form to use Wikipedia as a source, but I did check, and at least now in late March of 2020 it was valid). MC8 has 91 monsters, while PSMC1 has 105. By a quick count, 71 of these were carried over. Of the remaining 20, most resurfaced in Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II and Planes of Law (notably the archons). Only the air sentinel, the celestial lammasu, and the adamantite dragon didn’t make further appearances. The air sentinel is basically an off-brand djinn native to Bytopia (or the Twin Paradises as it’s still known at the time), and the other two are what it says on the tin. The adamantite dragon is also native to the Twin Paradises. Its breath weapons are the traditional cone of flame, and a time stop effect. Planescape didn’t really do dragons, which is probably why it made no further appearances.

All this makes PSMC1 a dissonant book. While the art was all redone by Tony DiTerlizzi and the layout is the Planescape we know and love, complete with in-character blow-up quotations, a lot of the text was not given the proper attention. While it’s by no means just copypaste, and some entries are lavishly expanded from the original, the fact remains that MC8’s writer J. Paul LaFountain was not a particularly good prosaist. The text is janky, which is thrown into sharper relief when it sits alongside material written specifically for this book.

However, PSMC1 is a vital book. It gathers together most of the major critters of the setting with the exception of modrons and some of the good-aligned outsiders. It’s got the main lineups of baatezu, tanar’ri, and yugoloths. There’s the marut, which D&D 3E later ran with and used as a springing board for the inevitables. There’s the random monster generator that is the hordling, there’s tieflings, shadow fiends, night hags, and the animal lords of Beastlands. We’re introduced to the combatants of the Blood War and the whole larva ecosystem/economy that the Lower Planes have got going on.

Most of the art is good, though a couple of the fiends only have very closely framed mugshots that don’t really tell much about how they look besides ugly, and it took me until the 3E-era Wayne Reynolds illustration of the ultroloth to figure out what it looks like.

Possibly my favourite thing about this book are the mephits. They’re basically elemental imps; small, winged humanoids with breath weapons and bad attitudes. The core of the entry is boosted off MC14 Fiend Folio Appendix, but that one has six mephits whereas this book has sixteen, one for each elemental, paraelemental, and quasielemental plane. They’re characterised by weakness as combatants and being an amusing collection of unwanted personality traits, but what makes them really shine is the concept of mephit messages. They are used as messengers by more powerful creatures, but the mephit itself is the message, and the type of mephit sent. A radiant mephit offers truce, a salt mephit declares open warfare, and so on. It’s like the language of flowers, if the flower was also an asshole to your pets, smelled bad, and tried to cadge cigarettes off you.

Next up is Planes of Chaos, and I’ll see if I can’t draw something more interesting out of that.

Vampire: Year One, Part II

And now for the second part of my dive into 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, the Japanese economic bubble burst, Gene Roddenberry passed away, and most pertinently, Vampire: The Masquerade was first released.

Here there be SPOILERS for Blood BondBlood Nativity, and Alien Hunger.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been unable to source “Blood at Dawn”, the 16-page adventure that came with the Storyteller’s screen. However, there is a synopsis on the White Wolf Wiki. I think the interesting bit is that it’s probably the first appearance of a mage character in World of Darkness. Mage: The Ascension would not come out until 1993. Set in Gary, it’s definitely a part of the Chicago Chronicle.

So, picking up from where we left off, Blood Bond. It is a 32-page adventure module with the charming tendency to save space by referencing the stats of major characters in Ashes to Ashes. They were reprinted together in Chicago Chronicles, Volume III, which somewhat mitigates the issue. It’s a variation on The Killing Joke, told in Vampire. There’s a vampire, Neally Edwards, whose old associate-cum-enemy, to avenge an old wrong, decides to drive him into joining the Sabbat. Along the railroad tracks. I very much get the sense that the PCs are an audience to someone’s novel outline. There’s good stuff in this, but it’s more material I would rip off than use as is. For instance, early on there’s a scene in a theatre that’s attacked by a Sabbat pack, and during combat a staked elder is revealed from the shattering concrete of the walls. There’s also a Sabbat initiation at the end, which is nifty. I’m pretty sure Blood Bond is the earliest good look at the Sabbat in the game, and that later material contradicts this pretty heavily. The text expects the PCs to play nice with them, which is not really a thing I would see happening were I to run this to an even superficially WoD-literate players in the year 2020. Blood Bond is the last of the Chicago books from 1991.

There’s also a couple of early adventures that do not take place in Chicago. The major one of these is Alien Hunger, which is set in Denver and looks a lot like the game line was still looking for its identity. It’s a starter module type thing, which starts as the characters wake up after their Embrace, in a dark cellar. The house upstairs is on fire. An effective start, at least. The twist is that they’re not organically grown vampires, but alchemically created, Embraced through the power of SCIENCE, but the undead Louis Pasteur. Unfortunately, poor Louis dies before the coterie ever gets to meet him, which feels to me like a bit of a cop-out. I mean, if you’re gonna go gonzo with historical characters as vampires, at least write in some interaction.

The adventure itself is mostly the PCs finding out what happened, who did it, meeting the Prince, and probably joining the Camarilla. Despite its outré premise, the execution is pretty standard.

There’s also Blood Nativity, a 16-page intro adventure published by Atlas Games that’s also about the characters being Embraced and then discovering what they are and feeding for the first time. This one’s set in Cleveland. If you can find it – unfortunately it’s been taken down from DriveThruRPG – it’s worth it for the NPCs. The sires of different clans for your neonates are a cool and usable bunch, except for the Gangrel whose only thing is liking Cleveland Cavaliers. The silly thing is that the sires Embrace the characters for a purpose, but the module as written is only Embrace, Vampires 101, and first feeding. There is enough background on the political situation to build on, at least. It’s an odd duck.

And finally, we come to the fresh breeze of authentic 1990s role-playing game design, The Players Guide. Just what your Vampire chronicle needs, more crap. There’s more character options, like new archetypes and a merits & flaws system that later became a core feature. This is some cool stuff.

And then there’s pages upon pages of hyperspecific new skills like Carpentry or Forensics, some of which are sub-skills or even the sub-skills of sub-skills. To take a dot of Toxicology, you have to have a dot in Chemistry or Biology, but both of those require you to first have a dot in Science. And there’s also more powerful Disciplines! These go up to ten! And the Clan Prestige advantage, which is clan-specific and takes up many pages. And new clans.

The Followers of Set, Assamites, Giovanni, Salubri, and Ravnos all make their first appearance here. Ravnos is also, as studied in 2020, really pretty awfully racist. I am very interested in seeing how the clan will be reinterpreted for V5.

Because 1991, there’s also an equipment chapter, with loads of details on different firearms and melee weapons. Unfortunately, the noble katana does not get a separate entry. Several different armoured vehicles do. This chapter feels like it ran off Twilight: 2000. There’s also a really specific set of rules for throwing weapons, with a note that you really don’t have to use these if you don’t want to. The tone is generally very chatty like that.

There’s a chapter on the daily unlife of a vampire with notes on an etiquette for favour trading, equipping your haven, treating your ghouls right, and so on. Finally, there’s a chapter of short essays on role-playing from the designers of the game. Some of them have aged poorly, others feel like self-obvious. I would imagine that these texts have cast a long shadow in certain gaming scenes.

I also read Milwaukee by Night, which came out in 1992 but was packaged into Chicago Chronicles, Volume III with Blood Bond and Ashes to Ashes, so I went through it as well.

So, Milwaukee. Not the first place that comes to mind when I’m thinking of a place where it’d be interesting to set a game book. However, it is close enough to work as a satellite of Chicago, and the early-1990s gaming scene would have been amused. Back in those days, Gen Con’s home town was Milwaukee. The book even discusses the halls of power that are the MECCA Center.

In the World of Darkness, Milwaukee is a violent place where death is cheap and licks are Embraced pretty freely since they keep getting killed by werewolves. Also the Prince is freshly dead. This came out in the same year as Werewolf: The Apocalypse, but feels like probably before it. This features a lot of werewolves, but it lists them as belonging to clans, not tribes, and names Mouse, Coyote, and Eagle. Later in 1992, Vampire’s second edition would also come out, but at least the White Wolf Wiki lists this as a first-edition book.

The first half of the book is NPCs and city guide. Incidentally, Milwaukee by Night is where Carna of Tremere makes her first appearance. In V5, she causes a major schism in the clan and goes her own way.

The second half is the adventure “Psychomachia”. I mentioned the Prince is dead? This where the coterie kills him. Prince Merik has gone insane and become a serial killer, who creates elaborate Hannibal-style death tableaux and also tells the coterie to figure out who’s doing masquerade-breaching murder. He then sends them off out of town into a werewolf ambush, where they get their asses kicked and staked. There’s rules telling what kind of Courage rolls the vampires need to make to remove the stakes. This pretty bluntly contradicts the rules stating that staking paralyses vampires and renders them completely helpless. The Players Guide has a sixth-level Potence power that allows you to move Zootopia DMV speed while staked, but that’s about it. And this is the first of two encounters in the adventure that are scripted to end with the PCs captured. Bad writing, this. I kinda like the structure of the adventure and the idea of the serial killer Prince, but these encounters just don’t work.

Next I think I’ll read some Werewolf…


Vampire: Year One, Part I

A bit over a year ago, I backed Chicago by Night for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. In time, I received a backer PDF, and at the time of this writing, the hardcopy is in the mail. But I read the backer PDF, and it felt to me that it was too beholden to the old editions of the game, too hung up on the previous two Chicagos by Night. But this was but a hunch, as I had not read them. And of course, to read the first Chicago by Night, I would need to understand Vampire: The Masquerade 1st Edition, which I was unfamiliar with – I only came on board with Revised.

Years ago, someone told me that one cannot authoritatively talk about anything without understanding its history at least back to the 18th century. With this guideline in mind, I went on DTRPG and got myself some PDFs, and proceeded to read through the entire first year of Vampire: The Masquerade (except for the adventure that came with the Storyteller screen, because that’s not on DTRPG). Obviously, the immediate precursors are Mark Rein•Hagen’s and Jonathan Tweet’s Ars Magica as well as Shadowrun, where Tom Dowd came up with the dice pools, but today I’m starting here. This post is, incidentally, gonna have a lot of SPOILERS for “Baptism by Fire”, Ashes to AshesBlood BondAlien Hunger, the stories in The Succubus Club, and Blood Nativity.

This isn’t so much a review as a let’s read type thing, but more than that it’s just the rewriting and restructuring of a Facebook thread where I jotted down my observations into a blog post.

1991, and the book that started it all. An unsubstantiated (and likely unsubstantiable) rumour claims that for a single quarter around its release, it outsold Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is said it is the first game that significantly evened out the gender balance of the hobby, bringing women to role-playing games. Some say that it ruined RPGs forever.

And yeah, reading this was an experience. The writer’s voice comes through strong and it depends on the reader whether it comes through as artsy and pretentious, or something that finally dares to take role-playing games seriously as an expressive medium or – dare I say it? – an art form.

Of course, while it’s easy to see why it became a classic, it’s also very obvious where it bears its age with less dignity. The Storyteller’s guidelines tell of advanced techniques that shouldn’t be used except with the most experienced and dedicated of role-players, such as flashbacks, dream sequences, and symbolism. The book is dedicated to Václav Havel. The recommended reading list contains, among others, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Milan Kundera, and Ayn Rand. In the afterword, Rein•Hagen tells how Vampire is an attempt to delve into the nature of evil.

It’s also said that the combat system was deliberately written to be crap so people would not use it, and instead solve problems through social interaction and role-playing. Somehow, reading this book from 29 years ago, I finally felt like I understood how that could’ve made a weird kind of sense at an age when this kind of game did not yet exist and the hobby was weaned on AD&D. The rules are a bone dry read, and the meat of the game is in the setting, drama, and storytelling chapters. By today’s standards, the 263-page rulebook isn’t even big, but I felt it could’ve lost 30, 40 pages easily, and most of that from the crunchy bits. It’s hard to put myself in the position of a gamer in the year that I turned six, and try to see if they really needed this many examples of Ability+Attribute combinations to cover different situations. They feel so intuitive to me.

Going back to the first rulebook also shows me what was there at the beginning. It’s just seven clans here, all Camarilla – Brujah, Tremere, Ventrue, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, and Gangrel, plus the Caitiff. The Anarchs are a larger presence than they ended up being for most of the game. Sabbat are coyly mentioned, but we don’t really know who they are yet. A bunch of the independent clans are named but not detailed.

Finally, there’s the start of the metaplot. I’d played Vampire and read Vampire before, but before barrelling through these first eight titles, I hadn’t quite appreciated how tightly the metaplot wound through it all. The core rulebook has the short adventure – or story, in the World of Darkness parlance – “Baptism by Fire”, which is pitched as the start of the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. “Forged in Steel” is about the struggle of Gary, Indiana against the attempts of Chicago vampires to control the town. Only three of the nine Vampire titles that came out in 1991 don’t have a connection to this. (“Blood at Dawn”, the adventure that came with the Storytellers Screen is set in Gary.)

The metaplot is also visible in how the books refer to one another, which also establishes a kind of reading order. Ashes to Ashes comes before Chicago by Night, which comes before The Succubus Club and Blood Bond. I read these a bit out of order but this post is, in part, a way for me to structure my thoughts, so they’re presented as they’re “supposed” to be.

In “Baptism by Fire”, the coterie is at the New Year’s ball thrown by Prince Modius of Gary in a dilapidated mansion, with a bunch of other vampires present who could all be Malkavians for how well-adjusted they are (there’s a delightful paradox for you – Malkavians are insane but how else would a vampire be?). There’s some brouhaha and a bit of a kerfuffle and you get to meet all the movers and shakers, such as they are, and maybe run in with a vampire hunter. Then Modius is summoned to Chicago and he sends the coterie in his stead.

The story picks up in Ashes to Ashes, an 83-page adventure module, as the coterie gets to Chicago and tries to meet with Prince Lodin. Who has just up and disappeared. The crème de la Camarilla of Chicago considers the coterie if not likely guilty, then at least very convenient scapegoats and also expendable hicks from the sticks. They must solve this mystery! Hijinks ensue.

The whole complex picture also features Anarchs, vampire hunters, a methuselah in torpor who’s also kinda but not quite but really King Menelaos from The Iliad (but we’re not told this until Chicago by Night, because Vampire is coy like that), mortal Satanists, and a ghoul ram. Oh, and Harry Houdini, because if we’re going to have an expansive supernatural secret history setting, of course we need a few famous historical people as vampires. In some perverse way I find myself liking this, even though it’s a fairly hideous railroad and there’s at least one positively idiotic scene (“Hey come at the crack of dawn to this football field and we’ll airlift you out to the meeting this is not a trap honest.”). The railroad is kinda self-justified by the theme of everyone pulling someone else’s strings and the coterie being mere pawns in the game of unlife. There are some actual choices, such as the option to just let Lodin die. Which makes the follow-up interesting because in the metaplot he’s not supposed to cark before Under a Blood Red Moon.

Amusingly, since it’s 2020 and it’s trivially easy to check these things, I will note that the sunrise is listed about an hour too early. It caught my eye because the whole thing is explicitly set in the first few nights of January.

Ashes to Ashes also features an interesting structural experiment, a B-plot played in a series of flashback episodes from the villain’s perspective, intended to feed the players some of the backstory the coterie will likely stay in the dark about. I have no idea if this is remotely workable, but it’s exactly the kind of bold experimentation I am here for. The book also contains a lot of STing advice that at least looks useful, including random crap meant to be thrown at the player whose character had the least to do in a previous scene, usually with no plot significance. The intention is more to get them to participate in the role-playing rather than give some sort of experience of success.

Ashes to Ashes leads to Chicago by Night, the first of its name. Fun book. The city description feels a bit Lonely Planet, but it works, and there’s a map, and before reading this book I hadn’t actually understood that Gary, despite being in a different state from Chicago, is actually right there, like, 50 kilometres away. That’s a half-hour drive. So that was useful. There’s a cool overarching concept with the two ancient vampires vying for control of the city and nudging everyone else to do their bidding, one of them from torpor. The other one is Helena, who’s never said to be of Troy but come on now. She has a ghoul named Paris. I mean Prias. They mix the story up a bit which rather annoys me, since if you’re gonna have a bunch of characters from The Iliad in your 90s gothic vampire Chicago, you should own that shit. There’s also Al Capone, because of course there is.

There’s a lot of NPCs. For the most part they work, their story functions are clear and there’s relationship maps for who hates whom and who’s pulling whose strings. The Ventrue Horatio Ballard is a mind-boggling amalgam of John Spica from Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote. I wondered for some time why the Sabbat vampires’ clans are listed as just “Sabbat” until I realized that Tzimisce and Lasombra weren’t introduced yet, and wouldn’t probably show up until The Player’s Guide to the Sabbat. There’s also a demon here, a succubus. I’m not sure where she fits in with Demon: The Fallen, but she probably doesn’t.

Then there’s The Succubus Club, which is an introduction to a vampire nightclub where the masquerade isn’t quite as tight as most places, and a series of short adventures tying in to the club, and basically also the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. This book, incidentally, has the really filthy habit of referring the reader to Chicago by Night for NPC stats, which must’ve been a pain in the ass before they were released together as Chicago Chronicles, Volume I.

It’s an… interesting book. One of the first things we are introduced is the Blood Dolls, a youth subculture that’s about playing vampire and drinking each other’s blood, which is on one level laughably over-the-top extreme but also pretty horrifying on multiple levels. For an interesting historical footnote, in the year of this book’s release 28 569 people died of AIDS in the United States. The Succubus Club makes no reference to HIV. Somehow, when it’s vampires playing around with blood it’s distanced enough, but when it’s normal people doing it, that distance for me vanishes and it immediately contextualises with everything I’ve read about the HIV epidemic, with Angels in America, with Just a Little Lovin’ and Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. There’s a moment of whiplash.

And then we’re on to discuss the layout of the club and the hidden haven of Helen of Troy, guarded by her three-thousand-year-old ghoul Paris also a giant ghoul scorpion.

The scenarios themselves are a bit uneven. The first one is “Annabelle’s Party”, which is about the Toreador primogen of Chicago, who has no artistic ability herself, throwing a party which is sabotaged to embarrass her. The party itself and the ways in which she’s embarrassed are pure gold – an unveiled sculpture is just a piece of a steam locomotive as a snide jab at a prior disagreement, and the bold new piece of music is just Beethoven’s Ninth (or some other unspecified but worn classic) upside down. The trail eventually leads to the rail yard and their Ventrue overseer who’s severely in denial about the importance of the railways in 1991 and plays with a model train set. There’s something about the portrayal of Edgar Drummond as a train-obsessed manchild that in 2020, when “carbon footprint” has entered our everyday vocabulary, feels subtly off. “Annabelle’s Party” also just sort of ends at act two without actually concluding.

Then there’s “Player of Pawns”, where two Elders play chess against each other, using subordinates as pawns. The Chicago player, Critias, of course fields the coterie. This one features a Finnish vampire named Killikillarven, which is not a Finnish name, whose role-playing instructions include: “Between sentences make a lot of grunts and “hmms.” When investigating things, scrunch up your right eye and stare with your bugged-out other eye (this is also what he does for the Evil Eye; see Spirit Thaumaturgy). You are not a happy immortal, so do not laugh often, but smile occasionally.”

“Player of Pawns” looks like it might be fun for a group that likes to fight a lot. Straightforward, clear structure.

There’s “Fundamental Differences”, in which a priest who has true faith comes to protest The Succubus Club with his flock. The elder vampires present want him dead, which is a problem because touching him is physically painful for low-Humanity Kindred. An additional problem is introduced by the man being actually a very nice and kind person. This one looks fun. The fourth one is “Death’s Sweet Sting”, where there’s an engineered strain of mononucleosis that kills vampires. It’s a bit too scifi for my liking, plus as written if the coterie fucks up it’s basically Gehenna right now, right here.

The Succubus Club is wrapped up by “Child’s Play”, a longer adventure where the coterie meets Nicolai, Chicago’s Tremere primogen who’s been around for centuries in the body of a nine-year-old. Think Damien Thorn and you’re close. First Nicolai tests whether they’re good enough by putting them on the trail of some vampire hunters and then tasks them with killing the vampire Ehrich Weiss, better known as… Harry Houdini! They are basically being set up to fail, both by the text and by Nicolai, which is an interesting decision.

As this text is starting to get long, the adventures Blood BondBlood Nativity and Alien Hunger, as well as The Players Guide, will be covered in a later post.

Wendy’s d20 – The Game We Didn’t Need

On a good day, I don’t like commercials. I dislike targeted advertising and I detest branding. I have adblocker on all my browsers, an advertising ban on my mailbox and another on my mobile number, and when I go to the movies, I bring an e-reader so I don’t have to pay attention to the commercials. I feel a spiritual connection with Captain Kramer in Airplane!

So imagine my unbridled joy when an American fast food chain released a hundred-page ad trying to disguise itself as a role-playing game, advertising something I am not only deeply uninterested in but also unable to buy, seeing as Wendy’s doesn’t have restaurants in Europe.

I’m not linking Feast of Legends. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already run across it on your social media of choice way too many times over the past two days. I’m also not reviewing it, since it seems to operate a lot on in-jokes about Wendy’s and other fast food brands. There seems to be an obsession about their stuff never being frozen.

I’m also not reviewing it because it’s an advertisement, not an actual game. I’ve seen people on forums claim that it’s competently designed, though, which is an interesting claim since the damn thing gives every impression of being originally designed for D&D 5E and then hastily rewritten for its new system. Though it’s not D&D, knowing D&D is mandatory to actually play it since it doesn’t explain concepts like “saving throw” despite using them and you’re not told what the stats do apart from Strength. I can sorta tease out that Grace is probably supposed to give attack bonuses on ranged attacks and possibly Defense, and Arcana is probably supposed to give a bonus to spell attacks, but I have no idea what Intelligence is for. Nothing seems to actually use Intelligence, or Charm. It also uses keywords that are first not defined and then mixed up, and the equipment chapter, for some reason titled “Adventuring” is riddled with typos that even MS Word’s spellchecker should’ve caught. And of course you get buffs for eating Wendy’s (as a player, not character) and debuffs for eating stuff from other joints.

The adventure is decent, though there’s annoying wordplay-based riddles that don’t work if you play in a language other than English. The most interesting part of the whole thing is the thinly veiled references to other fast food brands, though much like Wendy’s, we’ve managed to avoid having KFC or Jack in the Box over here.

The layout looks nice, I guess. The art is sorta competent.

Initially, some people in my social media bubble were annoyed that the work credited no designers – or more accurately, credited the work to Wendy – but honestly, if I were guilty of perpetrating this thing, I wouldn’t want word to get out either. Anyway, the responsible party is an advertising agency, not a game company. The names are on Twitter for the willing digger.

And then there’s the other thing. Like, I generally find it a safe assumption that a company of a certain size, especially based in the United States, a country still suffering from national trauma over that one time they had to get rid of slavery, is going to be up to some sketchy stuff labour-wise. I accept that when I buy something made by a large American corporation, their CEO is most likely funding the GOP. Buying a senator or a share in a president is a pretty good investment, after all. Turns out that even by the modest standards of the American food industry, Wendy’s is pretty bad. Like, really bad. Quoting from an LA Times report from the Mexican tomato farms where they source their tomatoes:

One day, a mother confronted a boss. She asked for more tortillas.

Ricardo Martinez, who was standing in the soup line behind the woman, recalled the boss’ reaction.

“He told her she would only get a slap in the face,” Martinez said. “Then an older man stepped in and said, ‘Don’t hit her, hit me.’ ”

Martinez said the boss knocked the man to the ground and beat him. “She just needed more for her kids. What they gave wasn’t enough,” Martinez said.

People too ill to work were put on the no-pay list. They couldn’t get in the soup line unless they swept up around the camp.

Wendy’s had also organised a showcase game session with Critical Role, who then presumably looked at Twitter, went “oops”, and donated their sponsorship money from the week to charity, tweeting:

We’ve donated our profits from our sponsorships this week to @FarmwrkrJustice, an organization that works to improve the lives of farmworkers. If you’re able to, please consider a donation and learn more about their work: http://farmworkerjustice.org

Which was the right thing to do, of course. I’m not going after Mercer & co. here, though it would’ve been a lot better if they’d done their work and vetted the company beforehand.

The last thing that bugs me here is the corporate bullshit aspect of it. The work is credited to the company logo, like their Twitter feed. On Twitter, “Wendy” dishes out snark and presents as a person. @Wendys (whom I blocked) isn’t a soulless billion-dollar corporation exploiting cheap labour in developing countries, she’s your friend who posts funny and relatable content! And now she’s a game designer, too! And you get buffs in her game by buying food from her restaurant! Yay friendship!

The YouTuber Sarah Z covered some aspects of this a year ago:

Also, while I am flattered that a soulless billion-dollar corporation considers me as a role-playing game hobbyist a demographic specifically worth targeting, I’d rather they didn’t. There is something about the idea of role-playing a lunch menu item – which is what the classes in Feast of Legends amount to – that makes my skin crawl. There’s something I find philosophically odious about actively participating in being advertised to, about taking on the role of a commodity that’s simultaneously being sold to me. It’s like being enthusiastically complicit in being oppressed by late-stage capitalism.

And seriously, if your annual revenue is in the ten-digit range, you can afford to include an editor in your ad budget.

Chernobyl Mon Amour Out Now!

Juhana Pettersson’s unique role-playing game Chernobyl Mon Amour, funded last year, is finally out and the backer copies have been sent. I did the translation, which was a fun gig. Especially the bit where I spent a couple of days reading up on the differences between Russian and Ukrainian transliteration in English as opposed to Finnish before concluding that going with the original differentiation is the best idea.

It’s a freeform game with very little in the way of rules mechanics. In Chernobyl Mon Amour, you play criminals who have fled into the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation. There, in the community of other former criminals in similar straits, you have the opportunity to forge a new life and find love. The focus of the game is less on problem-solving, adventure and violence and more on romance, coming to (possibly perverse) terms with the ever-present radiation, and day-to-day life in what’s essentially a postapocalyptic society.

You can get the game on DriveThruRPG in both PDF and PoD softcover: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/233986/Chernobyl-Mon-Amour

Let’s Read Planescape: The Eternal Boundary

It’s been a while since we did one of these, hasn’t it?

Around a year ago we inaugurated an RPG book club on Facebook and it took me this long to figure I might use the social pressure to get me working on this project again. So, to reiterate, as I am the keeper of a complete collection of the Planescape product line, I will read all of it and jot down my musings.

A lot has changed since I started these. Nowadays, this stuff is available in PDF on DriveThruRPG, with product histories written by Shannon Appelcline. I will be drawing on those histories as I go. I also noticed that the blog Guile’s World has created conversions of Planescape things for Pathfinder 1E, which I’ll be linking as we go along. The Eternal Boundary’s conversion is here.

Here we go, then. I chose The Eternal Boundary, partly because it’s a short 32-page adventure and I could get through it in an hour even while taking notes, and partly because it was the first adventure module published for Planescape, coming out in June 1994. Its product code 2601 is the next one from Planescape Campaign Setting.

Incidentally, an in-depth look into its bowels will contain SPOILERS.

The Eternal Boundary is written by L. Richard Baker III, who according to Wikipedia is the same person as the Rich Baker or Richard Baker who worked on a lot of AD&DD&D and Alternity stuff as well as some of the better Forgotten Realms novels like the Last Mythal trilogy and City of Ravens.

The first thing that strikes about this thing is that production-wise, they weren’t messing around. It comes with its own DM screen, with NPC stats and dungeon maps on the DM side and art, a tavern map and a map of the Hive on the player side. The adventure itself is a coverless booklet.

The Eternal Boundary, spread out

Plot and Structure

The adventure’s background is that a wizard by the name of Green Marvent, based in the gate town Plague-Mort, is hatching a cunning plan to destabilize the kriegstanz and become a real shaker in Sigil. It’s a bit on the convoluted side, but the basic idea is that his agents pick out barmies in the Hive – the mentally ill, beggars, people nobody will miss – and take them out with a spell called feign death, which makes them appear, well, dead. They’re then taken to the Mortuary, where Marvent’s agent on the inside flings them through a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire, ostensibly for cremation but really into a base run by other agents, who take the knocked-out barmies, reprogram them by telling them they’re dead but have a second chance at life, and give them orders to go to Sigil and join a faction. Marvent would then use these sleeper agents to do something that’s not described in detail. Green Marvent’s outfit is named the Illuminated, and they’re what we would call a sect.

The 1996 German translation by Uwe Körner.

The adventure is meant for low-level characters, levels 1st-3rd according to the text, 1st-5th according to the back cover. I checked my German-language copy, which says “Die Ewige Grenze is geeignet für eine Gruppe von 4-6 Charakteren der Stufen 1-5″, so I guess that settles it. This makes sense, first adventure and everything, and it kinda also works as an introduction to Planescape. It’s not a Grand Tour of the Planes kind of thing, but starts off slow. I figure a playthrough would take some four to six hours, depending on how quick the players are on the uptake and how much fighting they end up doing. In my judgement, this could be run as a one-shot.

The Eternal Boundary is structured into three parts, “The Hive, “The Mortuary” and “The Eternal Boundary”. In “The Hive”, they are hired to look for a person. It depends on party composition which introduction they get. If there are no faction members or only members of the Dustmen, the Bleak Cabal, or the Xaositects, they get the no-faction intro, and otherwise they get the faction start. This is because those three factions are deeply involved in the plot and especially having a Dustman in the party can shortcut most of the second part.

As a side note, it’s always felt to me like some of the factions are more NPC groups than others, and these three are on the NPC-ey end of the scale. I will talk more about this once we reach Factol’s Manifesto.

Anyway, they’re hired to look up a Hiver by name of Eliath because he has information about a demiplane called the Isle of Black Trees. This is funny to me because Planescape: Torment was later developed by Black Isle Studios. Anyway, by meeting people they should be able to figure out Eliath was killed recently and taken to the Mortuary.

“Should” is the operative word here. AD&D wasn’t the best system for running investigations and the DM is advised to just give them the map with hotspots and then throw encounters at them. They will meet Dustmen and Chaosmen and/or Bleakers, and a barmy local who “dies”. The Bleakers and Chaosmen are investigating the deaths and may decide that the PCs are either guilty or impeding the investigation. They will eventually be assaulted by the Shadowknave, Green Marvent’s catspaw, and his gang.

Hopefully, the party eventually figures out they need to investigate the Mortuary, which brings us to Part II, “The Mortuary”. First, though, they will be informed by their boss that Eliath has been spotted alive, and will hopefully look him up and interrogate him (among the things they can find out is that the Isle of Black Trees is a dead end with him). They’ll also encounter the barmy they saw “die” in the Hive, now going by another name and a member of a party member’s faction.

At this point, the party should have enough railroad track built to figure out there’s something sketchy going on at the Mortuary, so the next thing is to infiltrate it. Hopefully infiltrate, because a frontal assault will result in character deaths. Getting caught, on the other hand, will shortcut the entire second part of the adventure, since whoever catches them will either be Illuminated or hand them over to the Illuminated undercover agent. Unless they come clean to Factol Skall, who will conduct an investigation of his own and “dispose” of the PCs, which feels like bad design to me and I would have Skall throw the PCs at the problem on the philosophy that if it doesn’t make the problem go away, at least the PCs did.

The Mortuary is basically presented as a dungeon crawl instead of a more reasonable format for an infiltration mission, which I suppose is understandable considering the book reads AD&D and 1994, but does take up a lot of space. Incidentally, the Mortuary presented here is basically the same as the Mortuary of Planescape: Torment, with in some cases not only precisely the same floorplan but also the same encounters.

The problem with Part II is that by my reading, the clues the PCs go into the Mortuary with are pretty thin. They’ll have “the Mortuary” and possibly “Elemental Plane of Fire”, but unless they have a particularly kleptomaniac outlook and go to a specific crypt, they will not discover the agent’s name. These are always a bit hard to see just by reading the text, but to my eye the investigation does not flow naturally.

Anyway, one way or another they will end up through the gate to the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Citadel of Fire. The setup implies a few ways for them to go about this such as infiltration, but the end result is likely going to be an assault. At this point the party will likely have enough information to piece together what’s going on and will try to end it. There’s a boss, a githzerai fighter/mage named Imogen, to fight who will demonstrate admirable initiative once she figures out there are intruders, and will gather a team to seek and destroy them. This makes speed imperative – the more enemies the party can take out before Imogen gathers up her posse, the fewer members it will have. I like the crew in the Citadel of Fire. There’s a nice variety of adversaries. I have no idea what the stone golem is doing in a low-level adventure, though. By my reading, they’re not supposed to fight it, but it’s there and under the control of Imogen, which is weird.

The ideal ending is presented as destroying the life support gem, rescuing the prisoners, and returning to Sigil. What bothers me is what’s not presented. Green Marvent’s whole plot isn’t laid out very well, which makes failure or partial failure harder to adjudicate. The Eternal Boundary also doesn’t present options for follow-up. It’s like it’s written as the first part of a series but there are no sequels. Green Marvent, the evil mastermind, is never encountered. While he’s mentioned in the Plague-Mort entries in Planescape Campaign Setting and later in Well of Worlds, there’s no follow-up that I’ve been able to find. Reading this is like watching a story through a keyhole. I have a constant awareness of missing context.

The other side of the screen.


The Eternal Boundary is the first place where we encounter the concept of sects. Not quite as large, or powerful, or as Sigil-centered as the factions, they’re similar, significant power groups. Some of them have a governing philosophy of some kind, some – like the Illuminated – are mostly just a bunch of thugs. We will be formally introduced to sects in Planes of Chaos.

Another thing that struck me with its absence was Tony DiTerlizzi’s art. There are three full-page colour illustrations of a Sigil street, the Mortuary, and the Citadel of Fire, by Rick Berry, Ned Dameron, and Alan Pollack. The cover, portraying a Mortuary zombie with a number on his forehead, is by Robh Ruppel. I like it as an atmosphere piece but it is a bit drab.

So, there it is, The Eternal Boundary. I feel it is more interesting as a resource on the Mortuary than as an adventure module. Indeed, if its description of the Mortuary hadn’t been so detailed, I think it could’ve accommodated more immediately usable material such as more a more thorough description of the Illuminated and a rundown of Green Marvent’s masterplan. If you want a starred review, 3/5.

Next up: Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix I, unless someone convinces me otherwise.


As the dust has settled after Odysseus, photo galleries have come out of embargo and a lot of interesting material has been uploaded in various places.

First of all, all of the photo galleries from all the runs are now public. Most of them are accessible through larppikuvat.fi, except for the photos of Ami Koiranen, which are found at amikoiranen.com.

Second, two of the three Odysseus talks from Ropecon have gone through postproduction and been uploaded to YouTube.

The first is about the spatial design of the larp, by Mia Makkonen.

And the second is Essi Santala’s and Sampo Juustila’s talk on the IT, audio, and lighting of the larp, which is one of those cases where being told how the magic trick works makes it more impressive.

The third and final one is the GM team telling what Odysseus was and how they did it.

The final item I wish to link is a real doozy. While the physical objects that made the game are spread to the four winds – the costumes and signage sold, the wall elements sent off to Germany, smaller props stored away – the character briefs, soundfiles, software, and everything else electronic endures. So they collected it all in one place and put it up for download. It’s all free for non-commercial use, and it’s a marvellous treasure trove.

Tales of Entropy for Free

Petteri Hannila, the publisher and designer of Tales of Entropy, has put the game up as a free download on the game’s home page. It’s available in .epub, .mobi, and .pdf formats, and is a nifty storygame, especially for one-shots. Here’s what the home page says about it.

Tales of Entropy is a story game for 2-6 players. Each player takes a central role in depicting a dramatic scenario that sets the scene for murder and romance, friendship and conflict. The central characters are set against each other from the start, but it is up to the players—and the dice—whether the tense starting situation spirals into chaos and destruction or a blaze of glory at the end.

The game is based on a pre-written scenario, on top of which the players build a rich tapestry of content according to their own vision, creating a unique play experience. The game book includes ten scenarios ready to play out of the box: Want to tell a tale of power, war and love from the Viking Age, or experience an adventure of Sherlock Holmes in the exotic Limehouse? How about joining a struggling rock band near a breakthrough in the 90s, or defending a child with special needs against an obsessive FBI agent.

There’s also a selection of scenarios from when he published one a week for a year.

It is also available in print from all the usual suspects, such as DriveThruRPG.com.

My Worldcon Schedule

Dublin 2019 – An Irish Worldcon kicks off next week. I’ll be in town from the 12th through the 20th, and this time around I’ve also been put into a handful of panels. This is all still subject to change, and I may end up also running a tabletop RPG session somewhere in there. But this is it for the moment. Come and say hi!

10:00 Retro Hugos discussion
Panel 50 minutes CCD: Wicklow Hall-1
The Retro Hugo Awards honour works published after 1939 during a year for which no Hugos were awarded. This year the finalists have been drawn from works published in 1943 which would have been eligible for the 1944 Hugo awards, had they been held. The panel will discuss the finalists and where they fall in the overall history of SFF.
Heidi Lyshol (M), Robert Silverberg, Jukka Särkijärvi, Graham Sleight, Jo Walton

15:30 Running a post-apocalyptic convention
Panel 50 minutes Point Square: Stratocaster BC
When society breaks down and we no longer have technology or infrastructure to help us, how can we run an SFF convention? What would we even talk about if there are no new books, films, TV shows, or even the internet? Join our panellists as they come up with absurd and sobering ideas for running a convention after the end of the world… which we hope won’t be next week.
Heidi Lyshol (M), Norman Cates, Isabel Schechter, Jukka Särkijärvi

16:00 Dealing with crisis in conrunning
Panel 50 minutes CCD: Wicklow Room-2
Your hotel contract doesn’t actually say what you thought it did. A Guest of Honour goes missing. None of your laptops can run a crucial presentation. What crises have our conrunning panellists experienced, how did they handle them, and what plans do they recommend for preparing for the unexpected?
Dr. Deb Geisler (M), Kris “Nchanter” Snyder, Jukka Särkijärvi, Liat Shahar-Kashtan, Gérard Kraus

15:00 Bringing the Worldcon to a city near you!
Panel 50 minutes CCD: Liffey Room-2
Having a splendid time at Dublin 2019, an Irish Worldcon? Want to bring a Worldcon to a city near you? Our veteran conrunners will walk you through the practicalities, to set you up for success in bidding for, and then running, your future Worldcon.
Janice Gelb (M), Helen Montgomery, Alan Stewart, Vincent Docherty, Jukka Särkijärvi

Odysseus, Part II: War Stories

This is the second half of my Odysseus larp report. For Part I, see here.

The first post covered the basics of Odysseus, which I will not repeat here. In this post, I talk about my personal experience and the story arc of my character. This is by necessity a narrow perspective. The game had 312 players over three runs. The text reflects my experience and is neither meant to nor can it invalidate someone else’s.

This will be very long. Grab a drink or something.

It was a very large game and different character groups had completely different experiences to a greater degree than I’ve seen even in larger larps. I have no idea what it is the engineers actually did, didn’t understand the depth of medbay’s work until I saw the photos of them pulling parasites from someone’s arm, only heard about the Zodiac crime organization after the game, and so on.

You don’t see this on House. Photo by Mira Strengell.

Protector Jardan of the Velians

My character was Mission Commander Jardan (to the EOC), or Protector Jardan (to their own people). They were a leader of the Velian character group. In postgame conversations the Velians have been described as “space elves”, “space hippies”, and “hippie space elves”, but really none of these are good analogies (though I am reliably informed that their spiritual leader, the Guardian, was indeed “Space Jesus”). I’m not sure there is a good analogy. While you could make a case for bits of the Velians being inspired by certain sci-fi and real-world cultures, they’re more or less their own thing. There’s maybe a dash of Star Trek’s Vulcans in there. They were an offshoot of humanity dwelling on the inhospitable planet Velian in a single city built by an ancient alien species, covered by an energy dome that made the environment liveable. Their science and technology were far beyond what the EOC had, though they did not have spaceships.

Their society was basically a kind of spiritual gerontocracy, with the oldest members of the Protector caste forming a ruling council known as the One Percent. Other castes were Healers, Shields, Sentinels, Ambassadors, Mechanics, Labourers, and so on. Technically above the Protectors was The Guardian, the mysterious figure who was not quite a god, but maintained the dome. The Guardian was an alien, which the Velians knew and would be revealed to the rest of ESS Odysseus during the game.

Because city-sized environment domes don’t make population growth a great idea, they had adopted the lawfully-mandated practice of using implants that suppressed romantic feelings or lust, and procreation was clinical, controlled, and performed with extracted genetic matter and womb tanks with no need for physical attraction or messy coitus. In a workshop before the game, we also agreed that Velians would always refer to each other as “they”. To them, gender mattered little.

We started our game stranded on Velian with some EOC crew, in a blackbox. You can see the blue he/him pronoun pins on Jardan in the centre and Commander Rowen on the right. Photo by Mira Strengell.

As a note on design, we were all given unobtrusive pronoun pins to go with our name tags. During the workshops we had out-of-character name tags. During the game, military characters had their names on their uniforms, while civilians had ID cards that it was recommended we wear visibly. Their design was not entirely ideal since the type was fairly small and I couldn’t always read the name even when I was talking to the person. Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory for larp character names – except for the Velians, some of which I never managed to memorise.

Protector Jardan was old. At 68, they were the second-oldest character in the larp after The Guardian, who was an alien being so old that age became meaningless. They were also a member of the One Percent. Jardan was very much a traditionalist, set in their ways, and as much of an authoritarian as the consensus-political system allowed. Their faith in The Guardian was deep, and they were Jardan’s only confidant. Jardan was rather like a distant father to his people, especially during the game when his entire peer group had just died.

The Waiting Game

As the game began, the energy dome on Velian had been shrinking. The One Percent had concealed this from the people of Velian to avoid mass panic, but finally, rather too late, sought to evacuate the planet. Jardan had been the leader of the delegation and had been off-planet to negotiate for aid with the EOC when the dome finally did collapse, coincidentally at the same time as the Machines attacked the EOC. They started the game stranded back on Velian with the remnants of two different EOC naval crews and the last survivors of Velian, in an ancient spaceship whose life support systems were functional but hours away from breaking under the strain. (Long story.)

The ship was a large classroom that’d serve as the offgame sleeping area once we were done using it. As is visible in the photo below, it was rather more symbolic than the rest of the larp’s set design, with school furniture, and mattresses on the floor. The lighting did a lot, though.

A Velian standoff. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

The first five or six hours of our game were about fixing the communications systems so a distress call could be sent, boosting the life support what little we could, talking with one another, and waiting.

Jardan was overjoyed to discover that The Guardian had survived, and crushed to find out that these few survivors were all that was left of the thousand strong people of Velian. Entire castes had been wiped out. The only other member of the One Percent who still lived was Protector Omyr, who had survived grievous radiation burns.

I only realized around the time they were on their deathbed around three hours in that they were an NPC that was scripted to die. Down to 16.

Goodbye, Protector Omyr. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

The engineers figured out the technology and the medics tried to patch up everyone. We were all dinged up so bad that the start of our game got slightly delayed because everyone needed to get their wounds and injuries on. It was not a bad delay since it did not affect the game of anyone but us and we still got a good six hours of frustration and waiting before getting rescued. The design was purposefully such that we got on the edge as the life support ticked down.

Finally, rescue arrived, in the form of a team of gung-ho Marines and a cowboy shuttle pilot from ESS Odysseus. Six at a time, we were shepherded onto the shuttle and taken up to the ship. In practice, we were hustled out of the room, out of the side door of the school, into a van tricked out as the shuttle, and driven by some route to another door that led to the hangar bay. At this point, I fell entirely out of character. The dimly lit classroom had been nice and everything, but it was also very recognisably a classroom, and now we were getting a taste of the 360° illusion and high production values. I was grateful for my hood, because it could conceal that I was grinning like an idiot during the entire drive. We then went through the airlock and entered the Odysseus.

It was already late so there wasn’t much of a welcoming committee. Those needing medical attention (which, to be frank, was all of us, but there’s minor scrapes and then there’s severe radiation sickness) were taken to the medbay, we met Quartermaster Hayakawa and had our details taken so we could be issued ID cards, and around the time Doctor Peters called time of death on Researcher Fide, I realized we had another scripted NPC. Down to 15.

It was a beautiful ceremony. Photo by Mira Strengell.

We’d hashed out a decently complex memorial ritual for the dead in the workshops. Turns out there was a good reason. It was performed at least three times during the game.

Here, I had one of those moments. I do not, as a general thing, cry on demand, and it takes quite a bit of psyching up for me to produce tears. When the realisation hit Jardan that Velian was a dead world and they shouldered part of the blame, I did not cry. When Protector Omyr passed, I did not cry. When Researcher Fide lay there dead on the medical table, I did not cry.

And then, when at the lowest priority for medical attention, the scrapes on my hands were being cleaned, I figured “this would sting”, and that’s when my face started leaking full force. I played it as a collapse of Jardan’s leaderly reserve now that the immediate crisis was over and he could relax for a moment.

Cogs in the System

Odysseus’s nature as a clockwork larp soon became evident. The EOC characters all basically had their duties already set, either officially in one of the crew positions or unofficially as politicians or criminals or whatnot. The Velians came to this from the outside, and our first order of business was to get into the mesh. That was my priority as a leader both in and out of character – to get eyes and ears everywhere as well as prove to the EOC that we could pull our weight, and to get people play, respectively – and we very smoothly got our warriors into the Marines, the pilot into the cockpit, the physicians into the medbay, one person into Engineering and us political types into… position-type things. There was a lot of politics going on that Jardan took one look at, decided they were so far out of their depth they did not know which way was up, and delegated it to the Ambassadors. The one position they operated in was the War Council.

Shield Tarai and Protector Jardan having a serious conversation. They were all serious conversations. Photo by Mira Strengell.

The core experience of my game ended up being the burden of leadership, in trying to hold together the Velian group and find a way to keep their culture alive with fifteen people, many of them excitable youngsters. We also had the issue of the implants running out of power and the younger Velians feeling an entirely new spectrum of emotion, which Jardan disapproved of, especially in the middle of a crisis. I’ve never had so many conversations about procreation.

The other part of this was negotiating a place for Velians in the social, legal, and political structure of the fleet, which also involved keeping up The Guardian’s sacrosanct status. Velians were an independent nation, not citizens or subjects of the EOC, but we were all in the same boat now and had to move fast to get some security.

The Guardian, delivering an object lesson in appearing cryptic. Photo by Mira Strengell.

Of course, The Guardian’s true identity as an alien was one of the big secrets of the larp, and the narrative function of a secret is to be revealed. When the chips came down and orders came from up the hierarchy to get their medical information, the Odysseus crew was just too damn nice for that to happen. It was actually the Quartermaster of the Odysseus who came up with the idea of mocking up an innocent-looking dummy medical profile for The Guardian and running that up the flagpole to the Galaxy Commander, by dint of martial law the effective head of all humanity. This was called Operation Mushroom – “keep them in the dark and feed them shit”. Of course, the secret had to out eventually, but nobody got shot over it, despite all my strident invoking of 500-year-old cultural taboos and blasphemy.

Of course, keeping alive a culture of 15 people is not a goal destined for success, which was something Protector Jardan came to understand during the game. Though they counselled their people to adapt, Jardan realised they did not have the capability for it themselves, and in delegating responsibility, they made himself less and less indispensable to the Velians. Thus, when they were dragged from the deathbed of Aid Naethan to a meeting looking for volunteers to embark on a suicide mission and destroy the Machine mothership – which The Guardian was an important part of – the decision to stand up and take one for the team came very naturally.

Morituri vos salutant. At the microphone on the right, Captain Zeya Cook of ESS Odysseus. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

I’d never died in a larp before.

My last fifteen minutes of the game were sitting aboard ESS Starcaller, operating an alien cloaking device that allowed us to approach the mothership so we could blow up it up with an explosive device we had on board. Though there were pilots, a scientist and some Marines on board, we were a microcosm of five volunteers, paralysed by the machine, sharing stories and talking about mortality.

There was one of those perfect moments right at the end, when the countdown was already running. I’d been pressing the button on the cloaking device for fifteen minutes, and the situation was tense, so I was pressing it rather hard, and my hand began to shake. Opposite me, fellow volunteer Kerrie Ray asked: “Sir, are you alright?”

With a wan smile, my melancholic reply was drowned out by cockpit chatter and swallowed by the explosion: “No, I’m dying.”

We sat together in silence until the end of the game, listening to the cheers of the pilots coming back to the hangar. There may have been crying.

Trading Lives

There was a lot of dying, and a lot of that dying was some variety of suicide. The character of Tristan Fukui, the secret android and XO of the Atlantis, was scripted to space herself and come back. There was a suicide bombing whose circumstances I am somewhat unclear on. And then there was the last journey of the ESS Starcaller, a kamikaze mission to take out the enemy. We were not aware that taking out the mothership and the paranoid AI would, in addition to the Machines, kill every android on board.

The suicide mission was not the only possible end scenario, though it was the one that all three runs ended up with. According to the organisers, the other two possibilities were for the Odysseus to run and leave the fleet behind to be destroyed by the Machines, or take the mothership on in a straight fight and lose. While communicating with the AI was possible, success through diplomacy wasn’t in the cards. The AI, you see, had a bunch of human minds inside it so it knew how humans are. Odysseus’s image of humanity is a bleak one.

Before we embarked on our final journey, there was a scene where us volunteers took the stage, and The Guardian revealed their face to the whole ship, and gave a speech about what it was we were going to do: give our lives to end an intelligent species so that our own might live. The core message was that this was the endpoint of consistent failure of societies to live up to their own ideals. This was what fucking up looked like. “When you tell this story to your children, do not omit the mistakes, for it is there that the lessons lie.”

While we were flying out for our date with destiny, the civilians aboard Odysseus could watch the events unfolding on the large screen. As the mothership exploded, the androids died, and the final photographs of the larp paint a mournful picture.

Communications Specialist Ziva Callahan, the only known android at the beginning of the game. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.

Tristan Fukui collapsing. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.

Mourning Doctor Pearson. Photo by Mira Strengell.

Odysseus was never going to have a happy ending, and it was the greater work of art for it.

The Game Masters have published a blog post explaining larger story design decisions and spelling out a great deal of the background stories. It is very useful for context, and the “Final Words” section is vitally important.

These posts owe a great debt to the photography team of the second international run of Odysseus: Tuomas Puikkonen, Mira Strengell, Santtu Pajukanta, Ami Koiranen, and Henry Söderlund. I am deeply grateful that they have donated their time and skills to preserve glimpses of the magic.

Their full galleries can be found at larpkuvat.fi. The galleries of Ami Koiranen and Henry Söderlund are not yet public at the time of this publishing, but once they are, I may return to this post to edit in a few more appropriate shots. They captured their own share of gold.

Thanks also to Ninni Aalto for proofreading the first, vastly less coherent version of this text, and providing many helpful suggestions.

Header image by Mira Strengell.