As this was a one-shot and I wanted to give the players a chance to make characters while at the same time not wander off into the land of “What the hell do I do with them?!”, I created a family of NPCs and told the players to create characters that cared a great deal for at least one of these NPCs. Didn’t care who or why, but had to be at least one. The big thing about the Taggarts is that the husband disappeared three years ago mysteriously.
The players created the following:
Derrick Flat – A nerdy high schooler who goes to school with Joyce Taggart and has a major crush on her. He would very much like her to go out with him. He can’t sleep because he’s been having suicidal thoughts. His Exhaustion Talent is Random Trivia and his Madness Talent is Living Blood (the ability to slash himself open to produce and animate copious amounts of blood).
Ian Seymore – A well meaning college student who is a part of the Big Brothers program and is Bobby Taggart’s big brother. Bobby reminds Ian of his little brother, who died by falling off a bridge, and Ian can’t sleep because he’s haunted by nightmares of his brother’s death. His Exhaustion Talent is Self-Sacrifice (in the game, this worked out to me asking him if he’d like to get in the way of the threats that cropped up; I checked with other players to see if they were ok with this, and they were) and his Madness Talent is Invulnerability.
Sam Tanner – An elementary school teacher who has Candace Taggart in his class. He feels a strong connection to Candace because she lost her dad and his own father is dying (which is leading to his insomnia). His Exhaustion Talent is Martial Arts and his Madness Talent is Telekinesis.
Richard Greene – A terrible private investigator who had been hired by Maryanne Taggart to find her missing husband. He’s become obsessed with the search, becoming an insomniac, because his own father went missing. Maryanne reminds him of his mother, and he wants to make her happy. His Exhaustion Talent is Tenacity and his Madness Talent is Overpowering Strength (of the crazy “I knock over the Eiffel Tower” kind, not just everyday feats of strength).
Calvin – A whiny little kid who is Bobby Taggart’s best friend. He can’t sleep because he saw a UFO documentary and has been terrified ever since. His Exhaustion Talent is Whininess and his Madness Talent is Summoning Aliens.
The characters are at the Brooks Elementary School penny carnival, being put on to raise money for a new playground. Ian is taking care of Calvin and Bobby Taggart, Sam is hanging out with Candace Taggart (and being cajoled into buying a yarn doll), Richard is talking about other potential leads with Maryanne, and Derrick is pining for Joyce, attempting (with no success) to get her attention at one of the shooting booths. Each of them has noticed some weirdness, mostly seeing the wrong thing through windows and doors. Then, they notice the approach of Shadow Orderlies (though I don’t think I ever used this name during the game). They’re brawny men dressed in orderly-white and surgical masks. They’re really suspicious because they keep appearing and disappearing from view when people walk in front of them. Sam makes a 911 call, as he believes they might be predators or something.
The Shadow Orderlies disappear through some tent doors and reappear next the Taggarts. One grabs hold of a Taggart and transforms into a full body restraining outfit, complete with face mask, and the other Shadow Orderly grabs the entangled Taggart and hauls them through a door, disappearing. Nearly everyone gives chase, except Calvin, who screams and runs through the door of a different tent. They all end up, however, in a dark alley paved in cobblestones, with the Shadow Orderlies disappearing around a corner at the end.
Some of them make a run for Orderlies but are stopped by some cops in full riot gear. The weird thing is these cops have giant turnkeys in their backs. There’s a tussle. Derrick runs in the other direction and finds another tussle going on between two cops in British bobby outfits (plus turnkeys) and a haggard looking man in a dirty suit. The man is screaming, “No, you can’t take me back! I’m free! He set me free!” Another tussle on this end of the alley.
Finally, the cops are dispatched. Ian keeps Calvin with him and does a little looking around to find that the Orderlies are gone. The man in the suit turns out to be the missing Jacob Taggart. Upon learning that his family has been dragged into the Mad City, he says, “I can’t help them. I’m too tired. I need a safe place to sleep, or I’ll die. The Nightmares will kill me. You have to help them. I can’t. I can’t.” The others are disgusted with his behavior but he refuses to budge. He tells them that the Shadow Orderlies belong to the PsychoAnalyst, who has recently set up shop somewhere off of District Thirteen. Officer Tock has been sending criminals to the PsychoAnalyst for study and rehabilitation, but there are maybe rumors of a falling out. Jacob gives them some wax coins and tells them to go to the Bizarre Bazaar for more directions or ideas, as that’s all he can do. (Richard, at this point, changes his path from “find Jacob Taggart” to “replace Jacob Taggart in Maryanne’s heart”).
After following some goofy directions to the Bazaar, the characters do some running around for items and info. (I’m mucking up the order of this part, I’m sure….) Sam gets some directions to District Thirteen and trades away the symbolic nature of his clothing for a sword made of gears. (Note: by “symbolic nature of his clothing”, I mean Sam traded away his coat but presented it as a sort of outer identity which hides and protects the inner identity… so from now on Sam doesn’t feel comfortable in clothes because they grate against who he is). Calvin wanders off to find some candy but chooses not to buy any when he learns that the price is a square foot of skin for an old lady’s patchwork quilt. He also gets accosted by an oversized doll who berates him for raising her hopes that he’ll give her a home when he can’t even get himself home. Richard trades away a memory of an old whim that he fulfilled for a set up ninja clothes (complete with ninja, who was kind enough to kill himself so Richard could have his clothes). Ian trades away his despair at constantly failing people in his care (first his brother and now Bobby) for a set of vials with an addictive drug which allows him to temporarily change his Madness Talent. He also gets some info about the PsychoAnalyst. Apparently, Officer Tock may have had a falling out with the PsychoAnalyst, though he doesn’t seem predisposed to helping any of the Awake. Also, it’s rumored that the Wax King can broker a deal with the PsychoAnalyst, and there are some Rooftop Kids who have had some trouble with him, so might be willing to put up a fight. Derrick shares his vast knowledge of Star Trek to get some of this info and also gets a route out of the Mad City (which will work once).
They decide to go to the Wax King and trade away the dead ninja’s body for a token to see him. A Blind Knight takes them down by transforming them into wax and flowing through the sewers. The Wax King offers to set up an appointment with the PsychoAnalyst for them provided that they pay him. As he always needs more troops, he decides to take Derrick’s firstborn child, as he can’t be sure that any of the Awake will ever make it back. They’re confused by the whole thing, as the Wax King says he can just take the child now, even though Derrick doesn’t have one. Derrick agrees and the Wax King reaches into Derrick’s mind, following Derrick’s daydreams until he finds the fantasy of Derrick and Joyce’s child (I had the player describe this kid – it was awesome). Then, the Wax King plucks the fantasy out and creates it from wax in front of Derrick. This would be the part where I hauled out my best trembly voice and wide-eyes to stare up at the player and whimper, “Daddy? What’s happening?”
I’m especially proud of the part where the Wax King says casually, “Pluck out her eyes. I will have myself a new Blind Knight.”
Derrick lets loose with his Madness Talent, killing the Blind Knights dragging away the girl and pulling her into a protective cocoon. Richard charges the throne, with Ian helping and screaming, “Take him hostage! Take him hostage!” Richard makes use of his Madness Talent, rips the throne from the floor and takes the Wax King hostage. There’s some running around in the sewers for a while, but they are thoroughly lost. Finally letting the Wax King talk (as Richard’s hand is clamped firmly on the Wax King’s throat), they learn that the girl will not live outside of his kingdom and it’s not within his power to grant her existence outside of his kingdom. He offers the girl’s “life” and safety, as well as the appointment with the PsychoAnalyst if he is freed. There’s some arguing among the characters as Derrick wants more for his newly acquired daughter and is willing to give up the appointment with the PsychoAnalyst, while the other characters need that appointment to get the Taggarts back. Finally, they agree to go with the deal and the girl is pushed into a wall of wax to lie in stasis, waiting for her Papa to return and rescue her. They head off to see the PsychoAnalyst.
At St. Mercy’s Facility for the Criminally Insane, they are let in by an Orderly and ushered into a waiting room. There are forms to be filled, then they enter a therapy room with the PsychoAnalyst. The PsychoAnalyst seems coldly professional and it takes him a while to even figure out who the Taggarts are. Turns out he’d taken them as part of a deal and he had been studying them to figure out what it was about them that could inspire such a strong bond in others. Seems that his studies aren’t actually going anywhere and he’s concluded there’s really nothing special about them – it’s all in the eye of the beholder. He offers to give the Taggarts back for a chance to examine the feelings the characters have for them. They agree, though Ian insists that Calvin is excluded, as there are only four Taggarts and there are five Awake there. The process is degrading, belittling and tiring for most of them (3 pain dice on my end), though Derrick actually comes out it well, as he realizes that he’s a bit of a dolt and needs to shape up if he’s ever going to even talk to Joyce, nevermind go out with her (Discipline dominated). In the meantime, Calvin is tormented by a couple of neanderthalian creatures that had been running around in the facility who wanted him to fight with them. He was pathetically whiny and terrified enough that they left him alone in disgust.
The Taggarts are freed, intact but dazed. Derrick heads back to the Bizarre Bazaar and to others are forced to follow because he hasn’t shared the knowledge of how to get out of the Mad City. They really don’t trust him, though, and the Bazaar seems like a decent place to get info on how to leave. Derrick goes to get some info on… something. It’s completely left my brain. I think on maybe how to free his daughter? Anyway, this is really short and they start to leave the Mad City.
When they’re almost out, Jacob Taggart reappears. He’s ecstatic that his family is free and says that they belong to him. The others accuse him of selling his family to the PsychoAnalyst and he screams, “You don’t understand! He had my heart! I had to get it back. And now that they’re here, they belong with me. They’re in my heart….” He pulls open his chest to reveal an overly large, pulsing heart. Out of it crawls younger but faceless copies of the Taggarts. Showdown! Richard goes headfirst at the heart, fists flying. Sam uses telekinesis on the copies and goes to work with his gear sword. Ian throws back one of the vials and gives himself the ability to reshape his body, creating a bony meatshield over the real Taggarts to stop them from being taken. Calvin is panicky and summons aliens who do a certain amount of shooting around randomly. Derrick lets loose with some of his Madness Talent on Jacob. There is chaos and pain, but eventually Jacob falls. The others regroup to discover that Calvin is missing – in his panic, he ran through a doorway and disappeared. It’s decided to return the Taggarts to the Slumbering world and they’ll return to find Calvin. Plus, there’s the matter of the girl in the Wax King’s domain….
Some thoughts, in no order
- I really wasn’t on the ball with Calvin’s character. I should have paid more attention to make sure this kid would have things that he could do so he could be proactive rather than reactive. Like maybe giving him something at the Bazaar which could help with his science project (part of his path) or something.
- The firstborn child thing? Dude.
- I deliberately made info easy and cheap to find. This worked well. The weird prices for stuff seemed to really engage the players too.
- I’m glad I gave the players multiple routes to follow. They could have gone sneaky-sneaky through District Thirteen, or recruited Rooftop Kids for a frontal assault, or whatever.
- I left out scars and flashbacks, though flashbacks were left out because there never seemed to be an appropriate time to haul them out… plus there was a time constraint (we went an hour over time).
- I didn’t win a single conflict. Not one. And yet, by the end of it, I had two players sitting at six exhaustion, everyone had checked response boxes, and there was a certain amount of “Oh god, this hurt.” Awesome! One of the players actually commented on my complete lack of success at anything, and I just smirked and said, “Yeah…. It’s cuz I don’t need to win.”
- I have pretty pain dice!
- Sometimes, I was tempted to muck about with my dice because I really really wanted someone to take exhaustion or something. I tried to stomp on that to some extent and it turns out that I didn’t need to follow my impulses to keep the exhaustion and madness going.
- There was some thought that it would be nice to have more clearcut guidelines on how many pain dice go away, just so the players know how well they do.
- We shifted narration around. If Exhaustion or Discipline dominated, the player narrated. If Pain dominated, I narrated. If Madness dominated, the other players narrated. It seemed to work out well, though on occasion I narrated even though it wasn’t my go. I apologized when I mucked up, but no one seemed to mind.
- I really wasn’t expecting the sequel potential. I love players.
Overall, great game!