Fearful Symmetries: The Beginnings

It’s been pretty quiet around here for the past week or so. There’s a reason for that.

You may remember I posted some time ago about the new campaign I was starting called Scio Occultus Res. It was meant to be a two-person game using the Mage: The Awakening rules, and I wanted to get things rolling before Christmas. That didn’t happen. What with things being busy, the preparations dragged on and on, and the shiny wore off the idea for the players. So, last week, I kind of forced the issue, and said, “If you get me your player backgrounds by Friday, I will have a game ready for you to play on Saturday.”

They considered, and said that they weren’t all that interested anymore, but still wanted to game this weekend.

Now, I was happy to just have the game out of limbo, even if it was just for it to be cast into the outer darkness. I sent them a list of the game systems that I could have ready for Saturday, and asked them to pick one ASAP, to give me some prep time. They picked The Dresden Files RPG*. And that meant I got to put some of the things I’d been talking about here into practice.

We talked about power level, and the kinds of characters they wanted to play and the stories they wanted to tell, and fixed on Submerged. As things went on, though, I saw they were feeling more and more constrained by that power level – the ideas that had come up in discussing the game meant dealing with mythic, epic kinds of stories and characters, so I decided to give them two extra Refresh, for a starting total of 12*.

And then we talked setting. I had, many years ago, proposed a sort of loose campaign outline for a modern supernatural adventure game that I had called Fearful Symmetries, that focused on a small band of powerful heroes holding the forces of darkness at bay. They liked that idea, but thought it would be more fun in a historical context. The proposed time periods were eventually whittled down to the Thirty Years’ War. We talked about whether to make the setting a single city or a larger area: the Holy Roman Empire, or even all of Europe. We settled, thanks to a little nudging on my part, on Prague in 1620.

Why Prague? Three real reasons:

  1. This was where the spark that started the Thirty Years’ War was struck, and featured prominently in the war, especially in the early years.
  2. Prague is chock full of all sorts of creepy, mysterious, mythical, and just plain weird stuff.
  3. I had already done a fair bit of research on the city when I wrote this several years ago.

Why 1620? Because it’s early in the war, and late in the year the Battle of White Mountain will see the breaking of the Bohemian army and the occupation of the city by the Catholic coalition, which offers some very gameable moments. You’ll see when I get around to posting the setting document.

So, Friday night, we got together early, had some pizza, and ran through the city creation process for Prague. And it was fantastic.

I want to stress at this point that we did minimal research. I read a little in Wikipedia about the Thirty Years’ War, and had done the research on Prague years ago (and on a period ten years earlier than we were setting the game), but really we just wanted to use as much of the actual background as was fun – just the bits that were interesting, flavourful, and gameable. Same thing with the actual geography of the city.

Here’s a quote from the Character Creation chapter of Your Story:

As you create the characters and the world they inhabit, you have begun play.

They’re right. We brainstormed themes and threats, came up with thirteen different locations and their themes and threats, faces for everything, Aspects ditto, and a good, solid idea of the movers and shakers and the status quo. And the whole time, we were having a blast suggesting things, and elaborating on each other’s contributions, and riffing on ideas that seemed to spring from everyone at once. We were constantly amazed at how cool the city was becoming, and got more and more excited as things went on.

And then we built the characters. I built one along with the players, both because there were just two of them, and because I find it handy to have an NPC in the game that the characters have a good connection with. It gives them a starting point when they go out look for contacts and information. I created a 17th-century version of Amadan, because I think he’s an interesting archetype and a useful role to have available in the game. The other characters are:

  • Isabella Valdstejn, a Seasoned Wizard of the White Council, returning to Prague to attend the funeral of her father, who had sent her away forty years ago when he remarried.
  • Emric Sordason, the Rebellious Son of Surtr, bearing his fire giant father’s sword, which is fated to bring about Ragnarok.

By then, it was late and we called it a night.

I spent Saturday afternoon preparing a simple scenario for that night. Wanting to get away from the more rigid adventure structure encouraged by D&D, I took some solid advice from the indie gaming world. I had first read it in Dogs in the Vineyard*, and it was reiterated in the Building Scenarios chapter of Your Story: build a situation that forces conflict, and let the players figure out how to handle it. Don’t have a preconceived notion of how things are going to be resolved – don’t chart the whole course of the story.

Now, the chapter also strongly recommends tying in the Aspects of the characters but, being an idiot, I hadn’t made a list of them the night before. That meant I needed to build something that they could encounter pretty much at my whim, and I’d need to trust my players to follow up the dangling thread. They’re helpful players, and excited about the game, so I didn’t think it would be much of a problem. That evening, we spent the first little while putting the finishing touches on the characters, and discussing how some of the mechanics work, and then we got down to play.

I let the players set the first couple of scenes, with them meeting in Prague after not having seen each other for some time, having dinner in Isabella’s rooms, and talking. The next day, they went out to her family estate for her father’s funeral, and we did a little more character-building roleplaying along the way. On the way back, I decided to stage a little scene to drive home the situation in Prague. Their character was stopped and searched by a patrol from the city, who questioned them closely concerning their accents and business in city. One of the threats we came up with in the city-building session, you see, was The Emperor’s Spies are Everywhere. Isabella’s story checked out, as did Emric’s offer to buy the squad a drink, so they went on their way without further incident, but the scene helped to establish the mood.

It did more than that, though. I decided to make the squad a group of Swiss mercenaries, and played up their professionalism and attention to both courtesy and detail, thinking that it would lay a good groundwork for contrast when I brought a more brutish group of mercenaries on stage. The captain turned out to be so much fun to play, being polite and clever and completely civilized and businesslike, and he made such a good impression on the players, that I’ve made a note to flesh him out and use him further in the game.

That evening, as Emric was returning to his rooms, he spotted a disturbance in one of the twisting alleys where Old Town and New Town meet. Investigating, he found two rough men holding down a third and trying to pour something from a bottle into the mouth of their victim. He chased them off, and received a token from the man he had saved, saying that Zuckerbastl’s boys owed him a favour. Zuckerbastl is the local King of Thieves, so his favour can come in handy.

The next day, Emric and Isabella began investigating, and found that, even in the frightened city, the disappearances from Old Town were starting to make people talk, and say that Zuckerbastl was losing his grip on things. Our valiant heroes decided to go trolling through Old Town at night, Emric acting slightly drunk, and Isabella concealed behind a veil. They didn’t see anything untoward until Emric was propositioned by a prostitute. One of the bits of information they had picked up was that the disappearances had started with a number of prostitutes, so he paid his money and went up to her room, with Isabella unseen along for the ride.

In the room, Emric questioned the girl – Danika – and shared some wine with her. When he started asking about the disappearances and Zuckerbastl, she said she’d give him information in return for a kiss. He agreed, and this proved to be a mistake.

I told him he now had the Aspect Befuddled, and wanted to do whatever Danika told him to. More than anything, though, he wanted to kiss her again. Before he could, though, Isabella revealed herself to pull Danika off of him, but instead got flung across the room for her pains. Catching her breath, she used a Spirit Evocation to clear Emric’s mind, and Emric picked up the washstand and smashed Danika into a wall, knocking her out. He checked to see if she was still alive, and found her eyes to be completely black.

At this point, the bouncer from downstairs came in, and was not inclined to listen to reason. Isabella used her magic to knock the bed into his legs, dumping him on the ground, and Emric disarmed him and threatened him into submission. They tied him up, and went back to investigating Danika, who was healing very quickly and starting to stir. The signs all pointed to the fact that she was Red Court Infected. She confirmed this, and claimed that Zuckerbastl had a monster in his court that he used to control the girls.

The pair were left with a difficult choice, now: do they kill Danika, or do they let her go free? They know there is no cure for Red Court Vampirism, even at this stage, and the only way she can keep from becoming a monster is to discipline herself forever. They were quite torn, especially Emric, who saw many similarities between their situations. In the end, they decided to take her to St. Vitus Rotunda, one of the oldest churches in Prague, where they knew the clergy had some idea of the supernatural. The priest there told them that they knew how to handle this, and had a convent in Romania set up for cloistering the infected and helping them fight their disease.

Again, it had got late, so we left the game there, with Isabella and Emric planning to pay a visit to Zuckerbastl and find out what’s up.

All in all, I was very pleased with the way the game went, and impressed as hell that the game system (and, of course, my enthusiastic players) could get the whole setting built and running in less than a week. The setting we’ve come up with is rich and detailed, with many, many hooks for stories and adventures. Once I get it typed up, I’ll post the setting document somewhere on the site, along with the characters when my players send me copies.

Kudos to Evil Hat for making the game so fast and fun to set up and run.

And just one further note:

We’re playing DFRPG, and you can, too!


*Which I had just preordered, so I had the latest, greatest pre-printing pdfs to work from. Back

*Let’s call that level Sunk to the Knees in the Muddy Bottom. Back

*Always a killer source for good advice in running a game. Any game. Back

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8 Responses to Fearful Symmetries: The Beginnings

  1. Fred Hicks says:

    Wow. That’s a *great* first session. I’m well pleased.

  2. I have to say it was a blast! Really looking forward to the future. BTW, coming up with the city had another side effect – it makes the city almost like another character. And since the players help create it, they are invested in the stuff they put there right from the get-go.

  3. Rick Neal says:

    I also am well pleased with the way the game went. And Clint’s exactly right – building the city using the guidelines in the books and doing it as a group really makes it a part of the game, with huge player investment and an incredible amount of depth and creativity. If you’re waffling on whether you should do the whole thing with your group, take my advice: DO IT! It repays the invested time a hundredfold, at least.

  4. Yup. How many times in D&D does your DM say, “OK, so what adventure would you guys like to play.” Players are used to getting force-fed the scenario/plot hook/etc. As players in Dresden Files, If you want vampires, you make sure that they are a theme or threat in city creation. Then you can decide where they are, what they are doing, and give them faces. With that much work done by the players before the games begins, the GM is bound to use it.

  5. Dan says:

    Very cool. I suspect this works best with seasoned gamers. There would be triceratops mounts, ready access to the beer gardens of Valhalla, and the Kingdom of Sensuous Nurses if the Sunday night beer and pretzels group were tasked with this.

  6. Rick Neal says:

    I wouldn’t say that it works best for seasoned gamers, but the group needs to approach the task with the same sort of attitude and mood that they want in the game. The system will support crazy, comedic play, even if it focuses primarily on a more serious, though very cinematic and action-packed, type of play. If the group wants to ride triceratopses to the Kingdom of Sensuous Nurses while swilling Odin’s best ale (“Old One-Eye”), then you can build a game like that.

    That’s part of the real beauty of the method. If you approach it honestly and openly, you wind up with the exact world you want to play in.

  7. Rel Fexive says:

    Sounds wicked!

  8. Pingback: What's He On About Now? » Fearful Symmetries: Court of Thieves

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