Desolation Hangouts #2 – 5

My 5 sessions of the YouTube Desolation campaign have come to an end. As hoped, one of the players will be taking over as GM and running 5 more sessions from where session 5 ended. What follows is an overview of Hangouts, some final thoughts on the gaming culture which we adopted over five sessions of internet gaming between relative strangers, a recap of the events of those sessions, the average length of those sessions, and some notes on Ubiquity’s Style and Experience points.

Narrative Voice

In my eyes, the players responded to the curious setting very appropriately and with colorful and well-realized characters that are already taking on recognizable traits and characteristics of speech and manner. Interestingly, in play, the group drifted from its mixed voice narrative style to one much closer to a first person narrative style. In part this was as a result of personal experiments on the part of the two players who prefer the 3rd person, and in part it was due, I think, to the fast pace of the last two sessions. These latter sessions involved the intersection of several time lines, many physical, mental, and violent challenges, and a great deal of interaction in-character over significant and insignificant issues.

Hangouts

In the middle of the series, Hangouts were ‘updraded’ to a new format, but this seemed to have a positive effect on us as some of the tools began to work better and one player who has been wrestling with dropped connections to the service found this to occur far less often. While still problematic at times, Hangouts allowed for a good gaming experience in real time from opposite sides of the planet. I count myself satisfied.

Satisfaction

Over the course of my five sessions, I hoped that I would be able to communicate and facilitate an experience of Scondera after the Night of Fire and provide a backdrop for the characters to evolve from concepts into recognizable personalities aware of the curious dichotomy of their capability and fragility. I saw the beginnings of this in the final session where the personalities, the setting, and the interactions were all brought into focus by the players and they took the reins for real.

I could not be happier with what they did and how they did it.

You can watch a critique of the sessions by one of the players here.

Recap: Shards

Cast of Characters:

  • Norik: outdoorsperson, survivalist, human
  • Darian Dae: high born, sorcerer, human
  • Galdon the Red: arena athlete, competitor, mongrel
  • Max: Legionnaire (14th), older brother, human
  • Sylvia: teenager, sorcerer, human

Session 1: 90 minutes of play

After recognizing that the small community in which they had been sheltering during the Thaw was unclean, unsafe, and about to erupt in a religious war between two cult leaders, the game opened with the group heading north. They chose this direction on Max’s advice, looking for a secluded way station in Palantar province he felt could support them safely without too much interference. Norik’s distrust of the cities of the south further supported this decision.

Not long after they set out they found themselves wandering through a desert of glass shards and rippled earth that had consumed once-beautiful farmland. Quickly exhausting their meagre supplies, the group had to stop to give Norik time to scavenge and the others to rest and deal with the very real threat of cuts and abrasions from the bits of glass which had worked its way into their clothing and footwear.

Norik returned with some broken beast resembling a rabbit in some ways, and while preparing it for a small meal shared between too many mouths, he revealed that a forest marked the eastern edge of the desert. While the forest would be no less dangerous than the desert waste, the chances were better that food and water could be found in greater abundance, so the group decided to head in that direction.

As the sun set and Sylvia ate the lion’s share of the broken rabbit, Norik and Max managed to find edible grubs burrowing in the glass grit of the desert. The group tried to sate itself on the juicy creatures, but fatigue was too strong and they decided to rest before consuming too many. This was for the best as they later found out the grubs produce a toxin which causes disorientation.

While they rested and waited for the sun to come up, they were roused by the sound of two massive creatures battling out in the darkness. The battle did not take long, but when it was over they could hear the sound of the survivor closing on their camp, dragging its heavy kill. They quickly assembled to put it down quickly, in hope of having meat to ease the pain and emptiness of their slack bellies.

After a quick and brutal fight which showed the courage and strength of Max and Galdon, as well as Norik’s accurate archery under the cold, sorcerous light cast by Darian and Sylvia, the group had more meat, skin, and sinew than they could use. Having nearly given their lives for it, the group did their best to prepare it for travel. Wasting no time, they stayed up all night to harvest everything they could from the corpses and prepare a sledge of skins and rope to drag their kill to the forest.

Session 2: 1 hour of play

A looming storm finally broke as they began to cut across the desert to the east and the forest which awaited them there. Between the torrents of rain and buffeting winds, clouds of flying, stinging insects took advantage of lulls in the wind and rain to burrow in the mass of meat and crawl into the clothes of the travelers.

The pace was brutally slow and before long, the howls of predators in the distance caused the group to reassess its position. Darian considered attempting to lift their burdens with magic to speed travel, but the effort was too great. Starving, already affected by the ravages of Burn, and exhausted, he was unwilling to risk it and the unconsciousness that would likely follow.

Considering their options, the small group spotted an ancient Elven watchtower to the north, next to a massive crevasse caused by an even more enormous impact crater. As they could haul their burdens along the course of the dunes and rolling terrain instead of across it, they shifted course and headed to the tower, keeping ahead of the predators stalking them out among the glassy dunes.
A brief scouting trip around the tower worsened their situation. In the distance to the north, across the canyon and beyond the crater were clear signs of a large army on the move, heading south. Near the edge of this side of the canyon, they encountered a suit of armor with a stone man inside, face frozen in terror with the crumbled and obviously chewed remains of his horse and squire behind him. Did some beast lurking in this area have the power to turn its victims to stone and feed on them? Claiming the armor at the expense of shattering the petrified victim within, the group retreated to the tower.

Session 3: 2 hours of play
The tower was magically protected and sealed, and seems to have been pushed up out of the earth by the devastation which hit this region. Darian was able to find and read a magically hidden elven blessing on the main door and deduced that this was some sort of border watchtower from before the Elves were deprived of Nature’s love. With further study, he was able to comprehend the unlocking spell and open the tower. Inside there was nothing but old death and horrific evidence of Nature’s Revenge against the Elves centuries ago. Despite this grim but apropos reminder of judgement and death, the group chose to use the tower as a base of operations while they attempted to cook and cure their treasure of meat.

In the main room of the tower the group found an artifact whose magic still worked even after all these centuries of isolation and darkness. Marked as a gift to the Elves by an enclave of Gnomes, the table was able to accurately portray the topography of the nearby area and show any and all sources and courses of water. The edge of the table was raised and its top was painted with the familiar contours and shapes of Palantar province. White sand filled the tabletop and would shift itself to show the lay of the land, the flow of rivers, and any other source of water from storms to water casks.
Beneath the tower there were ruined rooms and tunnels built from stone intertwined with the branches, trunks, and roots of trees. The main room, flanked by a kitchen clearly not meant for humans, was an abattoir of old death and suffering as the vines, roots, and branches which helped support the structure in its day had animated and brutally savaged the elven guards and soldiers here, pinning them to the floors and pulling them asunder. The whole scene of ancient, brutal, murder was softly lit by the faded glow of a few, still-functioning magical crystals in the cracked walls around the room.

This reminder of the horrors not that long past cast a pall over the group and they reacted in different ways. Galdon began to search for much-needed cooking and food preparation gear. Max and Slyvia tried to figure out a way to put these desiccated and violated corpses to rest and entered into a discussion with Darian about what the Divine Mother would expect of them… burial or a pyre? Looking around this room the hand of the End Father seemed much more visible than that of the more loving aspect of the Two Above.

No answer was reached as Norik shocked them all by harvesting thigh bones from the dead. When questioned, his response was simple, “They’ll make good torches.” In the dim, magical light, his suggestion seemed both fitting and out-of-place.

Needing to clear their heads and more importantly deal with the spoiling meat, the group threw themselves into work. After a quick reconnaissance and search by Darian and Galdon, while Max rested and Norik and Sylvia began to prepare the meat, the group reassembled to decide what to do.

Session 4: 2 hours 30 minutes of play

Max, Galdon, and Darian returned to the tunnels to look for an armory. Norik and Sylvia began to cook, but were soon interrupted by Darian coming to get Norik in a panic. His breathless report was that after an hour or so searching bunk rooms, they had been surprised by the sickeningly awkward approach of an animated and hungry corpse composed of the grisly bits of many dead.

Exploration of the surviving tunnels beneath the tower revealed that the walking dead which so plague the ruined cities of the south were rising here as well… making the open grave of the common room more than just a threat to undisturbed sleep. In battle with the Combined Corpse, Max was injured and possibly infected as a broken, black nail was lodged deeply in his calf. What effects, if any, this infection may take have yet to manifest. Using the torches made by Norik from the thighs of dead elves thankfully still lying where they fell, Galdon used fire to put the Corpse out of its, and their, misery. By the time Norik arrived, bow at the ready, the threat had passed.

Everyone knew more dead would rise, so after scrounging quickly in the hallway for useful items, the group intended to return to the upper levels. Before they could complete their search, they were recalled to the main room at a run by Sylvia’s screams.

A sudden attack by three orcs, ritually scarred with images of bats, turned the peaceful upper chamber of the tower into a battleground. The group arrived in time to see these orcs shift in shape from huge fleshy bats into their natural and vicious forms. Norik and Maximus were injured in the fight, but thanks to teamwork, the sorcery of Sylvia and Darian, and the arrogance of the Orcs in attacking unarmed, no one but the enemy fell in battle. Dressing the wounds effectively, however, proved to be beyond them. Too tired, too hungry, and lacking proper skill and supplies, the risk of infection and ongoing injury weighed heavily on the wounded.

Under cover of darkness, the group disposed of the bodies of the orcs and returned to cooking the meat and seeking to boil off the poison within it. A few hours later, from up out of the canyon came a visitor – a well-dressed and equipped Gnome by the name of Tantor Khesh, who seemed dismayed to see the signs of the Oruskan army to the north of the canyon, and the group using the tower. These discoveries seemed to bring a great weight down upon him and under some astute and direct questioning from the bloodied and intent Norik and Max, he revealed that the Gnomes had once faced the threat of a great apocalypse of their own centuries ago, but they had averted it by changing their ways. Tantor Khesh tried to make light of it, by speaking with great reverence and respect with Galdon about his fame and great athletic records, but Max, once a legionnaire in this region, was well-acquainted with stories of emissaries from Gnomish communities seeking to warn the Ascondean and Dwarven leadership to step away from the edge of Apocalypse. It is clear in these bleak ruins, that that leadership did not listen.

Tantor Khesh, recognizable as one such former-emissary, after seeing the vast camp of the Oruskan army and viewing the corpses of the three orcs, came to realize that he must see to the safety of what he refers to obliquely as a cache of relics beneath the tower from the ancient history of the Gnomes, to ensure that they never see the light of day. He feels certain the Oruskan army can only be coming here to obtain it, and that they must have somehow learned of these caches after the upheavals of the Night of Fire. He reveals darkly that they have a powerful shaman in their midst, but the group dismissed all talk of the army and instead looked to the immediate situation. Worried that he does not have time to descend the treacherous canyon walls again to warn his cohorts in the village below and still be able to deal with the defense of the cache, he mentions it may be faster to descend to the cache using the tunnels beneath the tower. He seemed to believe that his mission had become the group’s as well. How could anyone not oppose the ravages of the Oruskans?

Looking at him knowing what they do about what lies in those tunnels, it seemed unlikely to them that he could survive on his own. The Gnome seemed to place the most importance on making sure that the army does not get their claws on the cache. To him, everything else seemed secondary – even warning the small community which would soon be the target of the blood-thirsty Oruskans.

After a few moments trying to sort themselves out and make sense of the wreckage in the main room, the group was actually making little progress making a decision about following Tantor Khesh. Excusing himself so that they could talk freely, the gnome headed down to the common room below. No one warned him of what he might find. Of course, with the corpses of the fallen orcs showing the telltale twitches and jerks of the dead-likely-to-rise, perhaps they thought he should just know.

Session 5: 1 hour 30 minutes of play

After quickly taking stock of their situation, the group agreed that they had to go, but decided that they had no business getting involved in such momentous matters as armies and ancient caches of mysterious artifacts. Dividing up the portions of cooked meat and reluctantly leaving the rest, the group headed down the stairs to ask Khesh to lead them out through the tunnels. In exchange, they could offer protection from the undead threats.

Downstairs, Tantor Khesh was nowhere to be found. Norik was able to follow his trail easily enough as his diminutive 3ft frame made navigating all the wreckage in the crumbled halls a challenge. The group followed the trail deeper down to the second underground level and found the ruins of store rooms, a small prison with the outlines of remains of orc prisoners from centuries ago, and the sealed door of the armory. Once again, although with greater effort, Darian was able to open the mystical lock. Taking the time to dig through the collapsed ceiling stones and supports inside the armory, the group let Tantor Khesh earn a much larger lead while they in turn collected a bounty of salvageable arrow and javelin heads.

Finally, as noises of more corpses encroaching on the staircase down to this floor from the upper level grew louder, the group took up the gnome’s trail again and descended a curving staircase into the greater dampness and coolness of unfinished stone walls in a natural cave.

The stairs ended suddenly as though whatever small stone room they had been built to reach had plunged into the darkness below at some point in the past. Looking down through the small, rough-edged hole at the unsupported base of the stairs, the group saw the black, rushing waters of a cold, underground stream and realized that they were at the end of the gnome’s trail.

Surmising that Tantor Khesh had scaled the wall to descend down to the edge of the river, the group briefly debated what to do. Before the salient points could be broached, Galdon leapt into the darkness of the river. Although he controlled his fall and landing, he was unprepared for the swift power of the current and how fast he was being taken into the darkness. Clutching for handholds on the smooth and slippery rocks beneath the surface slowed him enough that Norik’s quick throw of their rope was able to reach him before he was swept from sight. Max and Norik straining mightily, were able to pull the massive mongrel free of the grasp of the river and up onto the stairs again. To the others, it seemed as though Max pulled Galdon up on his own, by virtue of his powerful arms and solidity.

Tossing some stones, the group realized from the echoes that the narrow ledge they could now dimly recognized in the gloom on the far side of the river thanks to Galdon’s up close experience of the area, was in fact a fracture or passageway in the stone. With the options of heading back up to the tower through the ravenous risen dead, risking drowning in the river, or taking a chance on the passage, the way forward seemed suddenly quite clear. Cursing Khesh, Norik prepared to use his handmade rope one more time, while Galdon leapt out into the darkness to reach the riverside ledge.

Successful, despite the darkness and distance, the mongrel athlete did not pause for accolades. Tying off one end of the rope he prepared to receive the others as they climbed or slid down it to the ledge from the broken ends of the staircase above.

Sylvia, pushed to the limit by the desert, the grubs, the swarms, the wolves, the orcs, the undead, and now this, began hissing accusations at Darian for allowing his fear and lack of confidence to imperil them all. Her venom was intense and she beat at him brutally with her tiny fists. Darian took the abuse without defending himself from her emotional outburst. What could be said, really? She didn’t want the truth, she wanted escape from these horrors.

Once she was calm, Max sent Sylvia down the rope with Norik following quickly after, using his whip as a coil over the rope so that he could slide down rapidly. That left Darian and Max. Darian revealed he was afraid of falling, and afraid of the water below. Max took this in stride and decided to carry the young man with him down the rope. To assist, Galdon began to climb up the wall worried that Darian might be too heavy or to panicky for Max to handle. As he did so, the earth bucked and shook violently, as the noise of a massive detonation ripped through the stone around them. Shattered rocks fell from above and more cracks split the stone surfaces around them. The staircase collapsed, sending Max and Darian plunging downward.

Galdon was thrown from the wall but managed to grab Max as he fell and direct him to the river’s edge. In the same moment, Norik used his whip to lash out at Darian, catching the young man around the leg. Lacking the angle and leverage to pull him in, however, Norik found himself pulled into the water by the force of the river on Darian as the sorcerer was immersed in its cold waters.

Once again, fast action saved lives as Maximus waded after them following the fallen end of the rope and Galdon swam to get Darian. Norik found the end of the rope and clung to it desperately with friction burned hands, as Galdon shot past him to grab the young sorcerer. With great effort, the exhausted band made it to the edge of the water and finally out onto the cold stone floor of the ledge, near the weeping and horrified Sylvia.

After pulling its members from the icy grip of the rushing underground stream, the group found itself alone in the cold and damp cracks and tunnels under the tower. With the fresh damage and weakening of the roof and the remains of the staircase from the massive detonation or earthquake which knocked Darian and Maximus into the river, it no longer seemed safe to be down there.

Following the fastest and apparently safest way from the river’s edge, through the jagged split in the cave wall, brought the tired group out into the late morning air deep in the massive east/west canyon. As the crawled out into the hot sun of a cloudless sky, to their left the underground river spilled out onto the floor of the canyon, pooling and slowing in the lower center of the canyon floor before continuing its run, lazily and full of sand, grit, and glass from the desert above, toward the west and ostensibly the lowlands which used to form the eastern regions of the Empire. Who knows if they are still there?

To the west is the small ruins of the canyon community, some of it built right into the rock and some of it having dropped from the surface above when the impacts from falling stars on the Night of Fire caused the canyon to open. Thin trails from cooking fires show that life goes on as usual… perhaps still unaware of the threat looming in the desert above and to the north of them.

Battered, tired, needing nourishment and clean water the group knew that unless they could rest, eat and drink, they would re-enter a downward spiral of health and unwellness where their wounds would not heal and they would slowly sicken and die. The small amount of cooked meat they carry is the first ‘real food’ they have seen in almost a week. It might be the last.

The crack-like tunnel in the canyon wall was thin and hard to pass through, but seemed safe enough as they travelled through it to escape from under the tower. Where Tantor Khesh has gone is a mystery washed away by the fury of the underground river.

Style Points:

The characters by the book should have started play with 3-5 Style points in the first session based on their flaws and various contributions to getting the game off the ground. I have found that due to unfamiliarity and expectations imported from other games, including video games, the normal mindset is to hoard these points. As has been mentioned on this blog before, this is not how Ubiquity plays; Style points are an integral part of how the character can perform their actions and a roleplaying signal for how invested they are in success at that moment. In a real sense, Style represents not only their way of doing things, but also the effort they put into accomplishing those things. Great things done with Style, earn Style. Not unlike a certain diamond in a certain cornfield, if you spend them, they will come. To encourage that expenditure, I provided each character with 5 Style to start and slipped into OoC interaction when opportunities to spend it appeared, to emphasize that this was not a resource to hoard; it was only a resource when spent.

When the players got it, the game really took off.

I did not track Style expenditures and Start of Session/End of Session levels, but generally speaking Style rose and fell between 3 and 0 and back again in pretty much every session after the second. Had the situation been  less intense with fewer things happening in tight sequence, the upper ranges of Style would have been higher [perhaps reaching 5 or 6] as it would have had more opportunities to accrue before needing to be spent. As each session passed the players chose to spend more Style and spend more of it at one time. The results of this were very noticeable and the pace and energy of the game picked up not only in combat but in every other aspect of play.

Experience earned for Sessions 1 through 5:

Like in PBeM, the expected durations of play do not match well with those envisioned when designers present their systems. Unlike PBeM, however, the amount of XP earned per “session” often seems too high as opposed to too low for the amount of time invested. This can often be balanced by how long the group intends to play the game, and if character improvement (vs character development) is integral to that experience of play. In this case we are exploring Ubiquity’s rules as written, and we are continuing the campaign, so I assigned XP as by the book as I could. Giving XP for each session played simultaneously seemed too high as that amounted to less than 10 hours of play (roughly 2 of my normal round the table sessions), and too low due to the dedication to and difficulty of the play schedule.

  • Participation: 5 points (1 per game session)
  • Danger: 2 points (surviving and learning from near-death experiences)
  • Roleplay: 3 points (each character had several moments of RP greatness)
  • Success: 1 point (achieving a result in line with the group’s goals: fleeing the army)

Next Step

Next week we will continue from where we left off. I will be able to introduce my character and I will have to earn my place among the existing characters in the new GM’s interpretation of the foundation I have laid.

I cannot wait~

Comments
2 Responses to “Desolation Hangouts #2 – 5”
  1. Harrier says:

    Very happy to see this summary of the game so far. I like that it’s just so gritty, just struggling to survive.

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