On Wednesday, I hosted a hangout for some notable members of the YouTube RPG community to play the post-apocalyptic fantasy RPG, Desolation. The group was composed of a former arena athlete, a noble, a legionnaire and his young sister, and an outdoorsman. The setting was ostensibly the northern reaches of what used to be the Ascondean Empire, but the truth of that remains to be seen. What should be rolling grassland and old forests is now a desert of shattered glass.
Each of the players is an active member in the RPG community on YouTube. We have Natural 20 Games, a long-time gamer and game designer. We also have Dungeon Master 5-0, a peace officer and long-time gamer. Gothnog, the publisher of Theater of the Mind magazine and long-time gamer has agreed to participate. Finally, the reason we all got together in the first place was noted RPG Hobo Vlogger and voracious newcomer to gaming, Sameoldji: a prodigy if ever there was one.
The Process: Preparation and Intent
Desolation uses the Ubiquity Roleplaying System and incorporates additional rules for a unique system of magic. Of the four players, only one had had any experience with Ubiquity or Desolation. As we all live in very different places, with only 2 people even in the same time zone, we decided to set a limit to the number of sessions. After discussion, we decided on a 5 session run, at approximately 3 hours per session.
I bring these details up as they form the framework of how the game was to be set up. As the GM, I was given the following tasks:
- Facilitate engaging and interesting play in the basic setting of Desolation
- Demonstrate the Ubiquity Roleplaying System to newcomers
- Have some form of accomplishment and closure within the 5 sessions
- Inspire one or more players to run the game themselves
- Share how I run games with the RPG community
It was decided early on that as the group of players all appreciates having mechanics take a back seat to IC interaction, that the first session would focus on exposing as much of the system as we could and being willing to talk about systems openly OOC. The second session would be a review of what was covered and inclusion of other aspects which had not appeared in the first. After that, a more concerted effort to use the system without overtly referencing it would be the chosen approach.
As I am not a fan of watching Actual Play Reports, I hope to just present edited clips of specific elements in action. If that proves to be unwieldy, I will limit the reports to just one or two of the last sessions.
The Process: Implementation
After finding a time that works for all of us (but is sadly convenient only for 1 of us) we set about to play. My approach to meeting the goals set for me was to have the players design characters which already know each other and have reasons to be relying on each other to survive in the After.
Desolation is essentially a flavor of heroic pulp akin to Sword & Sorcery, with deadly and difficult magics, fallen civilizations, and poorly equipped heroes facing cruel and unusual beasts, environments, and challenges. I felt it was best to throw them into that from the beginning, rather than starting in a settlement. Due to the short amount of time allowed for the game, I also chose to start the session when they were close to stumbling across something interesting and full of potential for adventure. The region in which this takes place, is also ripe for action and adventure so wherever they go next, they are likely to stumble across something to care about and/or do. From my point of view, this is very heavy-handed interference in the set-up stage, and so in subsequent sessions I will be pulling my influence over story elements way back in order to allow the players room to determine what will be the focus of play.
The session started at sunset and this allowed me to hopefully plant some strong images of the strange environment they had entered, demonstrate some of the incomprehensible changes wrought during the Night of Fire, and bring the seriousness of the challenge of survival home quickly. As the characters moved across the sharp and invasive grains and fragments of glass making up the desert they were crossing, the sun dropped below the broken and truncated remains of the once sky-scraping Primea mountains far to the north. The largest moon’s crushed face and trail of tear-like fragments became visible in a night sky no longer host to uncountable stars. Once the moon set, the only light that would remain would be their tiny fire as it consumed the last little bits of their kindling.
Through the day, they had managed to find a leather canteen with no top, a functional knife sheathe, a metal belt buckle, a good supply of fat and curious grubs to eat, and a small broken rabbit whose meat divided five ways was more tease than nourishment. This was their first food in two days. If tomorrow did not bring rain, there would be no water left. The group was at a decision-point. Should they continue to follow the remnants of the legion road hoping to find a way-station with a supply of fresh water and perhaps another human community? Should they leave the road and cut across the desert of glass to the smudge of dark forest they could sometimes see on the eastern horizon? Should they return to the degenerate and doomed community they had just left and take their chances with the cultists, strongmen, and rapists which were becoming more plentiful than the regular folk? With dry throats and empty bellies this decision was not easy. With their hunger driven off for a few hours, they were still having trouble deciding, but were willing to press on to see if the way-station had survived.
During the night, they heard a battle between large animals in the dunes. What they did next, made all the difference~
Session 1: Review
During the first session we were able to clearly display the core personality traits and mannerisms of each character in the group, and spark some good IC discussions about the situation, the problems faced, and possible solutions. For me, this was a good accomplishment considering that this group had never played together before. We gave way to few distractions, and used the time either to roleplay or to work with the system. Fortunately, Ubiquity is so intuitive, little discussion of it was needed apart from framing how it handles resolution, and dealing with magic when it came up. We handled the first combat easily, and made use of magic without too much trouble.
Magic is free-form, however, and requires a systematic approach to building effects, so we will have to take that part slowly for awhile until all the players know what to suspect and how to deal with it from as much of an IC perspective as we can without falling prey to premature imagination or loss of immersion.
The players and characters bonded well, and dealt with the cruel situation they were in very well. When the session concluded, no one had died or gotten injured and they were in the possession of a very large quantity of meat which seemed safe to consume… if they could prepare and preserve it. The largest challenge of the evening was figuring out what to do with their sudden wealth of potential nourishment.
When we closed the session, the players had travelled closer to the forest, and in so doing spotted what appeared to be the ruin of an old watchtower. Being followed by patient and ever-circling wolves, with a massive storm incoming, they changed course to see if they could use it for shelter. Moving through alternating clouds of rain and biting insects, they made it to the tower just past noon. We ended the session with the decision to set up camp. Investigation, if any, of the tower will wait for the next session.
Ubiquity is a fast system with few moving parts, so running it in Hangouts is not hard. That said, it was nice to have experienced hangouts players in the group so that everything went smoothly. The dice app, “Bones” was up and running before I had to ask for it, player names and banners were up and running in moments, and we didn’t have to deal with volume or feedback issues. Fortunately, in this session, the only technical issues we had were directly related to one player’s PC and not the mysterious forces of “the internet.”
Due to my experience with dice rollers in the past, I opted to set things so that we would judge successes by rolling D8s and using 5-8 as a success. Ubiquity uses a die-pool method where evens are counted as successes. This particular app, however gave such strange results that I will revert back to counting evens as I feel it will produce more appropriate results. The spread of numbers in the app was too even for it to be entirely without some sort of modifying influence. To mitigate that, we will roll with the rules as written and look for evens. While it is faster for most people when using standard dice to look for high/low, in this case, it makes more sense to adapt to the tools at hand. I will have to check, however, to see if it models a D2.
If I still do not feel like we are getting normal results from the use of the app by the end of the second session, we will just roll dice and *gasp* trust each other. Go figure.
It is quite easy to present visuals such as images and other things through screen sharing, but I opted to use description and suggestion so as to encourage the players to contribute their thoughts and responses in dialogue. Even in combat, we proceeded in a purely imagined landscape. A combat between a giant creature with multiple modes of attack, and 5 characters in the darkness was run – with explanations and reviews of how the system models things – in less than 20 minutes. Had it just been run, it would have taken no more than 10.
Session 2: Preview
Whatever happens from here is essentially in the players’ hands. While there are certain elements in play from that first session which have implications or effects on the course of future decisions and interactions, the players are now free agents. At this stage, I have already set enough things in motion that the players, by acting in character, will be able to experience all the elements of a story – and they may even make sense at the end.
Decisions which lie in their immediate future are checking out the ruin of the tower, dealing with the insect problem, dealing with their heavy burden of meat, making use of the rest of their animal-borne bounty (hides, bones, sinew, etc), finding safe water, and charting a course out of the desert. We should toss dealing with the wolves in their for good measure.
Decisions which lie further in their future are deciding when and how to deal with the next community they find – if they find one – or what to do if they do not. More of these long-range decisions will crop up with each major step they take from here.
So, with a group like this, and getting to run a game with Ubiquity, I would easily go for a game via Hangouts now. It is not like being at the table, and it does hamper some things which I think are necessary for the sort of atmosphere I like to have, but it is not as limiting as I had imagined.
Darken others' doors: