Actual Play - [Dead of Night] Endangered Species - A Campaign!

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 16th 2010

One reason I've been really engaging with Neil & Malcolm's CAMCAM thread is that I've recently started an 8 week Dead of Night campaign. It was only after I pitched the idea for this to my local RPG club that it dawned on me that no-one had ever done this before (to the best of our knowledge).

One of the first things I did was to poll Andrew & Scott on some thoughts I'd had for modifying the character creation process to support campaign play; the main changes I proposed were Baggage and Reasons to Live.

Baggage: A piece of Baggage would be anything the PC was holding onto and trying to protect, so it could range from a relationship to an NPC, their reputation, a guilty secret, a treasured possession and so on. The idea was that, upon reaching the point of death for that character, the player could opt to lose a piece of Baggage instead, so each piece had to be something roughly as valuable to that character as their own life. In effect, each piece of Baggage is an 'extra life.'

Reasons to Live: A Reason to Live is effectively an agenda or mission for that PC, something they are yearning for or striving towards, such as reuniting with a loved one, getting revenge, uncovering the truth, etc. Quite simply, when the player opts to use a Reason to Live on a Risk check, then it is that agenda that is at stake rather than any Survival points. If they collect three successes from using it, the agenda is resolved successfully; if they collect three failures, it resolves unsuccessfully.

We started the campaign on Tuesday 13th July, with 5 players:
Scott Dorward: Playing Carl, a serious criminal, with Baggage of 'Newly Discovered Self-Respect' and a RtL of 'Get revenge on Cecilia Trent'.

**Anthony Edmonds:**Playing (Harold) Gehn, ex-military now working as a court bailiff, with Baggage of 'Secret: Dishonourable Discharge' and 'Item: Dead Comrade's Dogtags' and a RtL of 'Give dogtags to friend's relatives.'

Mark Kerr: Playing Frank, a student, with Baggage of 'Item: Girlfriend's engagement ring' and 'Georgia, my uni housemate' and a RtL of 'Reunite with Angela, my girlfriend.'

Jef Lay: Playing Paul, a farmer, with Baggage of 'Pacifist' and 'Item: Locket with wife's photo' and RtL of 'The farm.'

Steven Pretlove: Playing Tina, a policewoman, with Baggage of 'Secret: Killed a child' and 'Item: picture of my daughter' and a RtL of 'Rescue my daughter.'

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 16th 2010

The game I'd pitched, Endangered Species, is your typical Zombie apocalypse, heavily inspired by Max Brooks' World War Z. I'd also outlined a starting point I wanted to use, an armed siege that would segue into the rising of the dead to feast upon the living. After discussing the basic rules and my additions, then sharing character concepts, we settled on a courtroom scene: Carl is on trial for attempted abduction, when Paul, a farmer with grievances, bursts in with a shotgun during the statement given by Tina.

Gehn tackles Paul, but this causes his shotgun to go off, hitting the judge in the chest! The commotion attracts Inspector Greaves, who was also in court and takes the shotgun, but loses his temper and points it at Paul. After a scuffle, Greaves and Carl are subdued and an ambulance is called for the judge, but during the paramedic's examination, the judge gets up and bites her throat out. Shortly after, the paramedic also gets up and goes on the rampage.

Paul's attempt to exit the building is thwarted by some armed police at the entrance, but Frank and Georgia slip out through a side door, closely followed by a sly Carl. They dodge around another of the walking dead and commandeer his car, just in time to witness a huge fireball from the centre of town, possibly at the hospital where a riot in progress had been reported.

The remaining PCs also take the opportunity to get out and bundle into the car as it heads out of town; there are a series of misadventures on the road out, including an ambulance whose driver is being eaten alive; the attempted theft of a suburban couple's car loaded with supplies; some new travel arrangements as the group splits into two vehicles, including the suburban couple; the suburban couple turning and trying to eat the other occupants of their vehicle; a high speed collision with a sports car on the motorway, whose driver then goes postal on his rescuers; finally, the incineration of the crash scene, complete with most of the supplies the group had and Gehn losing the dogtags he had meant to take to his friend's family (the first Baggage to be checked off!)

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 16th 2010 edited

In the wake of the first session, I had some thoughts about my additional rules and shared these with the group:

- Two extra steps in character creation seems a bit much, I'd much rather streamline it to one.

- No-one got any use out of their 'Reason to Live' during the session, which isn't necessarily damning of it but also indicates that its not regarded as essential yet.

- There was certainly a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as character concepts were discussed, with some ideas for Baggage being changed into Reasons to Live, some ideas for Reasons to Live becoming Baggage and some ideas being tossed out altogether.

So, if I were going to make any changes, I might do this:

- There would only be Baggage, so Reasons to Live would be scrapped: a piece of Baggage would be anything you are holding onto, such as an item, a relationship, an ideal or a dream, so ambitions to obtain things or achieve goals could be Baggage.

- You could use your Baggage on any roll it applied to; this automatically makes that a Risk check, but you get to roll 3 dice and pick the best two results.

- You track the successes and failures of your rolls when using each piece of Baggage; if it reaches 5 successes, you have achieved some sort of positive closure. If it reaches 5 failures, that Baggage is taken from you in an unpleasant way. In either case, you choose a new piece of Baggage.

- When you fail any Risk check and have no Survival points left, e.g. your PC is going to die, you may scrap one of their pieces of Baggage instead. This has the same result as 5 failures for that Baggage, but you do not replace it with a new piece, though you do get 2 Survival points immediately.

This blends the best parts of Baggage and Reasons to Live into one function, plus it gives a solid mechanical incentive for pushing to include your Baggage in the narrative. Any thoughts?

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 16th 2010

Aah, I read the first post and then was going to ask what the set-up was, and whether you did any world burning. How collaborative was the campaign set-up?

I think combining Baggage and Reason to Live into one sounds sensible - there's a lot of overlap there otherwise. I've got a similar gimmick in a DoN hack I'm working on too - I'll post up my notes at some point soon.

How are you planning to tweak the Survival Point economy? Will Survival Points refresh from week to week? Do you have Bad Habits and cliches as normal?

How about character death? I can see it being rarer, but more emotive when it happens. Do you have a way of introducing replacement characters?

It sounds fun though James, and not at all related to this post here, oh no.


Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 16th 2010

Basically, I pitched the game idea and Scott said "Please we can not have Zombies that run", so that was the set-up. More seriously, I just wanted to do something like Robert Kirkman's comic series The Walking Dead, which is essentially a long-running soap opera with Zombies. The way our RPG club works is that you pitch a game and then players vote on which games they want to play in for the next 8 weeks, so you could say this was a popular choice.

At the start of the session, after going through the function of Tension points, I then asked the group what settings they wanted; they chose 'Only spend Tension points when the PCs are outnumbered' and 'Must spend at least 3 points', but they didn't limit what checks I could spend those points on. I then did a very bad thing during the session and vocally scrapped the first restriction when I felt it was tying my hands too much, but of course that restriction reflects the situations the players want to happen, so i'll reinstate it for the next session and throw a lot more Zombies at them.

As to the other mechanics, we're sticking to the 'Refresh 2 Survival points if you survive into the next session' mechanic from the rulebook, as I do want to have a reasonable mortality rate and the Baggage provides enough cushion against sudden death. We are using Bad Habits but not the general 'Running with Cliches' option, because I wanted to maintain a grim & gritty tone to the game.

I don't have any special plans for dealing with character deaths & replacements as yet; I think that's a bridge we'll cross soon enough.

One extra thing I haven't mentioned is that, since a lot of the drama stems from conflicts with other characters, I'm running a number of NPCs as Unstoppable Killers, so in addition to the general threat of the Horde, whose Survival points will refresh completely every session, there will be some villainous guest stars who pop up for an episode and may become recurring characters. Inspector Greaves was the first such example of this, but it doesn't seem likely we'll be seeing him again; luckily, the character creation process has suggested a number of other NPC villains to challenge the PCs with...

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 28th 2010

We've now shaved Baggage down quite a bit, into a more streamlined and intuitive mechanic: we scrapped the 'agenda' style tracking, so now you lose Baggage if you fail a roll that involves it. This still leaves you with the option to spend a Survival point for a re-roll and bear in mind that you roll 3d10 when Baggage is involved anyway, taking the two results of your choice.

We also added that a new PC can start with some Baggage for free, but anyone can spend 2 Survival points to gain Baggage, though never more than two pieces per PC. Also, choosing to lose Baggage to avoid death only gains you 1 Survival point.

Using these modifications, we saw a lot more use of Baggage in the third session, with everybody making several rolls which risked their Baggage and only saving it by spending their Survival points for a re-roll.

At this stage in the game, the survivors have left the 'safety' of their farmhouse, after it was beseiged by zombies and claimed as property of the British Governement under the Emergency Powers Act. They headed to Southampton, hoping to sail to the continent, accompanied by Pvt. Pile, a soldier assigned to escort them to safety (the replacement for Steve's character, Police Sergeant Tina, who died on the way to the farm) and Marcus Sheen, an American trapped in the UK when the crisis occurred (replacing Gehn, who was eaten by zombies when they surrounded the farm)

A General Fortescue took an interest in Carl, Scott's character, as it turned out they both had something in common: they died on the morning of the day the dead rose, but they came back to life without a mark on them. The rest of the session revolved around whether they would take advantage of Carl's status (which is still largely unknown to the other PCs) to claim sanctuary with the military, or press on for Europe. Pvt. Pile took matters into his own hands, attempting to board a ship waiting at the docks, but inadvertently found himself at the head of another zombie assault. Carl then discovered that one reason the army was interested in him was that they could use him as some kind of zombie bait, that would draw off the zombies in Southampton, away from the army's compound. When this strategem went awry, the General gave them the means to make their own way across the English Channel, in the hope that enough of the zombies would follow Carl to allow the compound to be re-secured. We left our heroes as they passed one of the large refugee ships, with a full outbreak taking place on-board it and desperate refugees throwings themselves into the water... but Carl refused to save any of them and even tried to get rid of Georgia, the flatmate of Mark's character! Tensions between the survivors are rising as they arrive in France...

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 28th 2010

Sounds good James. The streamlined baggage mechanics sound like a good change too - makes it much easier to use, I imagine. Did anyone lose any of their baggage?

It sounds like you have quite a high turnover of characters! Is that posing a problem when it comes to cohesion of party and continuity of agenda? Or is it keeping the threat of danger high?


Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 29th 2010

To be honest, the high-turnover is coming from the players who are treating it most like a shmup, i.e. the players who are most willing to have their characters wade into trouble or, if none is available, to make some and then wade into it. So no, it's not been a problem so far.

And yes: Steve lost his new character's Baggage (his grandfather's antique WWII pistol) when he threw it at some zombies shortly before being eaten by them. Scott's character, the loathsome and sociopathic Carl, came close but a series of doubles on his Risk checks kept him supplied with a healthy number of Survival points.

That was an interesting point that arose during the third session: a lot of doubles were rolled, so the players earned a lot more Survival points, so ended in a generally very healthy situation, In the previous session, a lot of 13s were rolled, so it was me who benefitted from the bonus points. I might keep tabs on this sort of thing and see how it affects the tone of each session retrospectively.

I'd also really like to see Scott's take on things, from a player's point of view, which would be a very different insight into the game from mine. C'mon Scott: what do you really think?

Posted by: Scott Dorward On: Jul 30th 2010

I think it's going rather well so far.

In my experience, Bad Habits have proved to be more useful in this than any other DoN game I've played. I must admit that I did pick habits (greedy and misanthropic) that I thought would be well-fitted to the way I planned to play the character, but I wasn't quite prepared for how good a survival strategy playing the classic horror movie trope of a back-stabbing, self-serving weasel would work out.

What's even more interesting is the way that despite being ready to push any other PC under the bus, Carl has ended up as almost the authority figure of the group, simply because his ruthlessness has kept people alive. It's beginning to resemble the later series of Blake's 7, if Avon had no redeeming qualities at all. I'm kind of hoping I managed to push it too far last game and that there will be some kind of revolt.

The upshot of all this, though, is that it really has ended up feeling like a zombie film, with the best and worst of human nature determining survival and driving the story.

As James mentioned, the dice have been quite capricious. This time round, almost every success I rolled was a double, so I was able to take a lot more risks and spend Survival Points on a variety of things. Last session was a different story, with two PCs dying, and me going from ten Survival Points to none (saved by jettisoning my baggage) in the course of a couple of hours.

Given that it is a zombie film, and that the characters have been willing to turn on each other when things get rough, the attrition rate hasn't been too bad. We've had three PCs die over three sessions, with five players, so it's probably no worse that your average Cthulhu game. When I compare it to source material like The Walking Dead comics, it seems about right.

Part of the improved survival rate is definitely related to Baggage, but not as much as it may appear at first. I've only actually remembered to use it twice so far -- admittedly once was to save myself from hitting zero Survival Points -- and Carl's continued survival owes more to earning two new SPs at the start of each session and, as mentioned before, really hitting Bad Habits hard.

I came into this with an open mind about how well-suited DoN was to a campaign, and I've been very pleased with what I've seen so far. I'm not sure how well it would work for something longer than the eight-week block we have, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine using it for something like Masks of Nyarlothotep now.

Posted by: James Mullen On: Aug 5th 2010

When does Horror stop being Horror?

At the mid-way point in the campaign, we've recahed an unexpected situation. After the PCs arrived at a cult compound on the coast of France, Scott's character Carl was able to parlay his unusual background (he died the day the Zombies arose but he came back to full life, not undeath) into a coup where he is now leader of the cult, with the consensus of those who were running it. He is more or less on his way to becoming Pope... but thats a very different game from the Horror campaign I first pitched.

So there's the dilemma: I'm all for following the narrative, but Carl's story is more likely to be about political intrigue than visceral horror now, unless I deliberately inject some into his story. That won't be quite as good a story though! I mean, purely through the emergent nature of the story-telling, one of the characters is now in a unique position of great influence, while the rest have fled his burgeoning empire to seek their own safety. Telling a story that involves all of them is certain to bring them back into conflict with each other... so how far should I go, as GM, to keep the Zombies forehrounded? If I don't push the PCs, they are likely to accumulate obscene numbers of Survival points, but pushing Zombies in their face seems a bit cynical and calculated.

I appreciate that DoN is a flexible system and the whole Survival economy can reflect any kind of stress or conflict, but this was pitched as a Horror campaign... so do I push for Horror even when the game demands Intrigue? Or do I up the level of Intrigue to an insane level of paranoia just to whittle away at Survival points, which then makes the tone of the game fundamentally different?

Posted by: Scott Dorward On: Aug 6th 2010

There certainly are plenty precedents for horror stories about power struggles against the backdrop of an apocalypse. The original Romero Day of the Dead is very much along these lines, and Land of the Dead to a lesser extent, and so is the most recent collection of The Walking Dead. Even the recent BBC adaptation of Day of the Triffids hinged on this. They're all still fundamentally horror stories.

An alternative could be to start at a point where the cult has imploded -- having Cecilia (Carl's equally sociopathic former lover and partner in crime) around makes this pretty inevitable -- and make the next session for the struggle for survival as the defences it provided fall apart. Or, if you wanted to make Cecilia a major villain, she's more than capable of staging her own coup, and we could start after this has taken place.

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Aug 6th 2010

When I read your post James, it didn't seem at all out of place. It conjured to mind the genre perfectly, making me think of those "quiet" parts of 28 Days Later (when they find the army base) or Day of the Triffids or Children of Men (in the farmhouse), when the protagonists think they're safe, when thoughts start to turn to concerns of power or intrigue. But it's just a lull - surely, the moment that the zombies find their way back in is just around the corner? Preferably by the actions of one of the players...

Posted by: James Mullen On: Aug 11th 2010 edited

Disclaimer: No fictional children were harmed by Scott in the making of this game session.

This week, we had one of my favourite sessions of the campaign so far: Scott's character, Carl, spent most of his time at the head of a crusade travelling to Rome to depose the Pope and become the new spiritual leader of the world. Along the way, he dodged a couple of assassination attempts, ordered an execution, discovered that there is no biological medium for zombie 'infection', failed to get a CAT scan and watched a live broadcast from Barack Obama which suffered a technical breakdown and ended looping through the same combination of three words from different parts of the speech: "YOU...WILL... DIE..."

Meanwhile, the other characters had finally linked up with Angela, the finacee of Mark's character Frank, and holed up in a school close to the border of France and Spain, along with Warren, who had survived a zombie uprising in the local town and been in the school ever since. It also turned out that Warren killed several of the school-children to save them from the zombies, the discovery of which lead to a bloody & violent conflict between him and the PCs, leaving Angela dead and also costing Georgia (Mark's other NPC relationship!) her life. They also got another viewpoint on the mystery behind events when they discovered that Warren was another 'Finding Nemo' obsessive and he claimed that they couldn't kill him because he's already died before! They did prove him wrong on that point, at least.

As we ended the session, the four characters had 3 Survival points and one piece of Baggage between them, so the session I had feared would be the mildest and least horrific was actually the most gruelling and dangerous one the group had faced so far. Very gratifying and it nicely sets up the campaign for the final run of three sessions to the end of the story...

Posted by: James Mullen On: Sep 7th 2010 edited

Just a final note on this campaign: we finished last week, with an epic story-arc taking us to the end, where Jef & Anthony's characters, Paul and Marcus, found refuge on Gibraltar and were sent as envoys of the new government there to open diplomatic relations with the Holy Roman Empire, which by now was under the leadership of Scott's character, Carl.

Over the course of three sessions:

  • Carl slipped over the edge and ended up believing in his own claims to divinity
    [*] Paul & Marcus got caught up in a political thriller when Carl's doctor asked for asylum on Gibraltar
    [*] the return engagement on Gibraltar nearly began with the assassination of Pope Carl by the island's own security forces
    [*] the Pope discovered an underground Zombie fighting club and initiated an outbreak to provide himself with the situation he needed to subsume Gibraltar into his burgeoning empire
    [*] Gibraltar's chief of security (a guest character played by Robin Poole) triggered his final protocol: a huge bomb capable of devastating the island
    [*] Paul survived and became a grudging bodyguard for Carl, when the latter discovered he had the power to send the zombies back into true death, permanently
    [*] The final story-line picked up 1 year later, with Marcus now the American ambassador to the Vatican (yes, the USA finally showed up and started 'protecting' Europe), whilst Carl was a prophet wandering the wilderness after Cecilia spread the news of his death and stepped into his place as Pope.

    The final confrontation took place in St. Peter's Square, with Carl leading a crusade into Rome, having discovered that he could even restore a zombie to full life, rather like the experience he had had. Whatever strange being was sharing his body had the ability to warp our dimensions, turning back time for an individual, but it was hiding from the hungry entity that had possessed the dead and was hunting it down, along with its countless siblings. Cecilia allowed herself to be possessed by this thing whilst still alive, so it came down to a struggle between her and Carl, but it was Marcus who struck the final blow, weakening the entity's grip on our world so that all the zombies in the world died at once!

    In a few codas, we established what the fates of various characters were, with Carl's being that he died in the final confrontation, since the thing in his head, which he called Nemo, was lost in the final battle, but in contrast to the last time he died, this time his soul arose into light rather than descending into deeper darkness. A fitting end to all that had gone before, so next on the agenda: a horror series, using some form of the mythology rules Andrew is contemplating.

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Sep 7th 2010

Cheers for posting this James. What are your final thoughts on the extended play rules? Did they work? And how did you resolve the strange direction away from horror the campaign was taking mid-way through?

Posted by: James Mullen On: Sep 9th 2010

I posted this reflection on the game to a number of forums a week before the final session.

1. If PCs have multiple Bad Habits, then players must be supported and encouraged to make them as diverse as possible; use your BHs to showcase different, even contradictory aspects of the character. If two or more of a character's BHs occupy the same thematic ground, then opportunities for earning Survival points are reduced, but it is a very easy trap to fall into; for example, 'Quick Tempered' and 'Hates women' are both demonstrations of how the character doesn't get on well with others, so that PC is likely to face situations where both conditions could apply. If they had used one of those BHs to show a different side of their character, they would have doubled the number of situations where it was possible for them to earn a Survival point.

2. A campaign works perfectly well using only the rules from the 2nd Edition book; gaining 2 Survival points for surviving to the next session is enough to keep the mortality rate to an acceptable level and preserves continuity. The additional rule module I plugged in, Baggage, wasn't a neccessity, but it was helpful in enabling players to hold onto their characters a little bit longer than they otherwise would have.

3. On the subject of Baggage, we found two ways in which it worked most effectively: first, when the Baggage represented something physical that the PC lugged around with them, such as a valued possession or a loved one. In this form, the Baggage fitted well with the mechanics that allowed you to roll 3d10 instead of 2d10 when the Baggage was relevant to the task, e.g. firing your Grandfather's antique pistol at the monsters or saving your best friend from danger.

Second, when the Baggage represented a goal or ideal, something that was hugely important to the character's life, e.g. travelling to a particular destination or winning a target's affection. This gives players much more of an incentive to go off the rails and gives the GM more ammuntion to use in making the PCs lives more complicated. The very best kind of Baggage is something that has elements of both of these, such as where you want to change the relationship you have to an NPC in your care or you have to deliver an item in undamaged condition to its intended recipient. Given these considerations, I'd change the name of Baggage to 'Reasons to Live', as that better reflects what they should be about.

4. Every PC should start out with some kind of agenda that is separate from the main plot of the campaign but which allows for them to interfere with each other. This can either be in the form of a Reason to Live, as outlined above, or just a statement by the player making it clear what their character wants and how far they will go to achieve it. In order to keep a campaign varied, you need to give the PCs challenges besides the simple facts of survival and its much easier to do so if the PCs clearly want things that they are prepared to fight for. This also helps in keeping the intra-party relationships on the simmer and provides a source of further conflicts between PCs.

5. As GM, you don't have to sit and wait for players to claim Survival points for acting out their Bad Habits, you can offer them a point and suggest what their character could do right now. This is very similar to the way in which Spirit of the Century uses aspects & compels, bribing a player with game resources in order to bring in some disadvantageous narrative thread focussed on their character.

In addition, I think the trend away from horror was down to the pitch of 'soap opera with zombies', making it inevitable that, sometimes, the zombies would fade into the background and the soap opera-style drama would take centre stage. Its something I should have been more prepared for but I'm better armed to accept it and incorporate it now.

Posted by: Scott Dorward On: Sep 9th 2010

The changes of tone seemed perfectly natural to me, as they all occurred organically as a result of actions in the game world. It was exciting to see how well the DoN mechanics worked for those sessions where the zombie menace was in the background and the main conflicts were political or interpersonal.

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