Saturday, March 30, 2013

Narrative Control should not be Monopolized

Narrative Control should not be Monopolized
by Tobie Abad

I will admit, I am not well read on the history of when allowing players to have narrative control began in role-playing games.  In the many years that I have been playing games, I must confess to having less of a willingness back then to explore other game lines.  Though I started with a wide variety (my first games were under the Dungeons and Dragons colored box sets, Red to Gold, followed by forays into Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP, Top Seceret, Star Frontiers and the like) by the later years prior to this blog's creation, I pretty much stuck to either the World of Darkness, d20, or a few other key lines.

But then I encountered John Wick's Houses of the Blooded, and trust me the idea of wagers that gave players narrative control blew me away.  While I have always been a supporter of letting players come up with their own ideas or details to add to the game, to out right hand them the freedom to co-create the story in a much more direct way was a new thing for me.  And one which I at first approached with apprehension.

How Can I Keep The Plot Intact?
That was admittedly my first fear.  Throughout my gaming history, I would spend days prior to the game session mapping out the possible plot threads to be explored.  I would map out the flow of stories, based on the theme, the motifs, the characters, based on the dreams and desires of the cast, the fates and destinies of those they will meet.  While I was raised on a steady diet of modules (or in the case of White Wolf, story books) to inspire me, I had roots in both theater and television/film production to know enough that characters can be the central roots of emerging stories.  One merely needed to answer "What does ___ want?"  "Why doesn't ____ have it?"  and "What will ____ be willing to do to get it?"

So my notes would have little cobwebs of interconnections, showing which characters would have desires and dreams that intercepted with others, and which ones would likely support one another, or try to stop one another.   The intricate web was flexible, yet delicate, and allowed me to adjust to players and react accordingly.

Narrative control, it seemed, told me NOT to do that.  And that idea at first seemed absolutely preposterous.  How can I run a game if I don't map out these webs of interconnecting plots?  How can I manage it if I don't know what happens next?

The Genius Moment
That's when it occurred to me:  Neither do the players.
And that;s where the fun can exist.  Since instead of just me thinking of what these characters might be up to, now even the players can do so.   And the way Houses of the Blooded did this was through the use of a system called wagers.  With good rolls, a player can declare facts that are to be deemed true for the game.   Yes, the system was not shielded from abuse.  Yes, a "smart" player can twist all facts to favor himself.  But that's just like playing a game of solitaire with all the cards spread out from the start.  If you're going to cheat, then you're ruining the game for yourself.  So, in a way, the game reminded us we are responsible of our own happiness.   We are responsible for making the game fun.

And that's a lesson I felt that was most invaluable and important that giving players narrative control accomplishes... the understanding of how we, all of us in the game, are working together to keep it fun.

Satisfactions Don't End
And trust me, the joys of narrative control have not ended from that day we first tried it.  If you as a game master once loved how the plots come together and a player goes, "I get it!"  You will realize how much more awesome a feeling it is when players themselves come up with awesome twists to add to your game.    I've had everything from a lowly female samurai fighting for her father's love, being revealed to actually be the real hidden daughter of a dead Emperor, or a deadly dramatic fight becoming one epic moment when the player was able to define facts which showed why that particular enemy would fail and these kinds of plot twists were purely player created!

In a way, there is also that joy of discovery for the game master!  That feeling you loved giving your players when the "Aha!" moment happened is now something you too receive in every game session.  And that joy of when players talk with you after the game, and at times end up suggesting ideas you like is now something that naturally unfolds during the session itself!

Then you have players who stop thinking of being "perfect" and instead start loving their character's concepts more because of how the flaws make them more interesting.   You have players who are less focused on "how many points I got" and more interested in "what plot lines we can thresh out and develop fully" without them ever stepping "out of character" during the session.

The urge to co-narrate is infectious and very compelling that even when we played other games (like Castle Falkenstein), your players will now sometimes ask, "Can it be that it happened because of...." instead of just being passive until the time comes for combat and rolls (or cards) come in.

Respect the Old School.
In the end,  I understand that games that give players narrative control is not for everyone.  Nor is it for every game.  I doubt I would ever give narrative control to players for a game such as Lacuna, for example.  It definitely will not work for a session of Psychosis.  And while I can imagine it working for Pathfinder and other Dungeons and Dragons type of games, the number-crunch laden approach of those games don't easily work well with giving players the ability to just declare the assassin to actually be a wizard, or a spy, instantly.  

Just as there will always be people who just won't like that kind of a game.  I hate basketball.  I know its a popular sport and I know its a very thriving business even, but I personally would rather sleep than play, watch, read about or even role-play anything related to basketball.  So likewise, I totally understand that for some people, they would probably rather not play at all than embrace a game that allows players narrative control.  That's just part of what makes us, the human race, interesting.

My Final Invite
But if you are curious about it, I do highly suggest you go for it.  With games like John Wick's Houses of the Blooded (which started with a FATE-like system),  Magpie Games' Our Last Best Hope, Bullypulpit Games' Fiasco, Ron Edward's Sorcerer, and other games like Dogs in the Vineyard and the like out there, you have very many games that offer a wide-variety of ranges of narrative control.  You might just like it.  And if not, then at least you can say you have an informed opinion about it.

Oh and Happy Table Top Day!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Soundtrack Suggestion: Mama - Fernando Velazquez

by Fernando Velazquez

Not everyone has seen the movie, Mama, which started out as a youtube short which Guillermo del Toro decided to support and have as a full-length movie.  The movie explored the story of a couple that had to raise two young girls who were left alone in the forest for a number of years.  Or at least that was what they thought.

The soundtrack is just about four minutes over an hour long, with eighteen tracks in total.  The composer is not a new face in the industry.  But then again, not that many people have seen the movies he also worked on (such as El Orfanato and Devil).  This early, let me say this: If you want a soundtrack you can easily use, or cue a song and leave looping until you need to shift a scene, this is NOT the soundtrack for you.   This has gems, but man, it requires either great familiarity with the tracks, or a willingness to adjust to the music rather than the players more often.

Off the bat, the first track, The Car and the Radio (Track 01) opens with a shrill rising set of strings reminiscent of the signature sound of the Hitchcock movie, Psycho.  Then it quickly builds into a fast tempo suggesting danger in the horizon.  There are some strains that remind me of the soundtrack to M. Night Shyamalan's The Signs and The Happening, but then again admittedly very few horror movies come up with a completely unique score now.   By the time The Encounter and Main Title (Track 02) comes around, there's no denying this is a scary movie with almost Tim Burton-esque touches as the harmonies have an almost nursery rhyme touch with children's voices singing along.  I personally felt this pulled away from seeing the atmosphere as real horror, however, and more towards theatrical horror.  I admit being biased towards the use of paino keys in a horror track, however, which makes me love Helvetia (Track 03) but sadly around the 3 minute mark, the track itself changes in mood and feel, which reduces its usability in a game.  Game scenes tend to require loopable tracks given players may take far longer than preferred in discussing a scene out.  Then by the later half of the track, it shifts back to the soft piano which I felt should have been the whole theme of the track.  (And yes, it ends with panic again.  So scratch that as making the track that useful.)  What Happens Now (Track 05) suffers from the same problem of not having a solid theme in a single track.  Victoria and Mama (Track 08) could have been a signature piece, but again shifts too often within its own flow.  Scare and Lucas Wake Up (Track 11) has it very bad, with very contrasting tunes in a single almost four minute track.  I list You Guys Talk a Lot (Track 14) as a hopeful track below, but trust me even that was a bit of a forced category, given the mood still is more tense than hopeful.  Last Hypno (Track 15) was very promising, but again rises from a calm introspective feel to growing tension near the one minute, thirty mark, which I felt could have been instead a whole new track.  There's almost silence in the one minute forty mark, but then it returns sounding like a whole new piece with cymbals and tense strings, then by the two minute mark we leap back into a hopeful piano piece.  Ultimately, the soundtrack can get frustrating to use in games, unless you are the type who can adjust the scenes to the music on the fly.

Observation Room (Track 07) is one of the most useful tracks, as it carries a heavy atmosphere without relenting.  The track is nicely loopable too.  The Painted Wall/The Doll (Track 09) is somewhat loopable, but sadly still a challenge to use.  Good Night (Track 16) is my favorite of the soundtrack, and I feel is the main reason I'd buy the soundtrack.  Its nicely touching with its emotive piano without becoming kiddie the way Pan's Labyrinth does.

The titular track, Mama Fight (Track 17) is a barrage of horns that tries to scream you into horrific submission, and while not as effective as The Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth, it does have its own notable impact as the horns blare against the dizzying strings.   And the final track, Last Reel (Track 18) is an oddity for me.  Running thirteen minutes and thirteen seconds long, the track opens as if the horror has not ended (which I feel is because most films are trying to do the final surprise horror moment nowadays).  One minute into the track, the music shifts to an extended moment of panic that dissolves into a chorus of hope by the fourth minute.  But again, even before the fifth minute is reached, that hope is replaced by a pumping series of bars that remind me more of Matrix Revolutions.  Clearly, the idea is to highlight the last heroic moment against the monster, but aurally it comes off as being undecided on what mood to indulge in.  Your false sense of victory hits at the six minute mark, but seemingly gets thrown out of an echo of Night on Bald Mountain by the seventh minute.  Eight minute onwards, we have the choral of voices telling you all is well, but the ten minute mark reminds you there is loss accompanying the victory.  At eleven minutes in, the strains are so high it feels almost.. divine.  As if all you need is some massive sign saying, "Happily Ever After."

Mama OST track suggestions
WTF moment: The Car and the Radio (Track 01), Helvetia (Track 03), What Happens Now (Track 05), Scare and Lucas Wake Up (Track 11), Mama Fight (Track 17)
Introspective/calm moment:   A New Home (Track 04)
Tense/mystery moment: The Encounter and Main Title (Track 02), Voices from the Other Room (Track 06), Observation Room (Track 07), Victoria and Mama (Track 08), The Painted Wall/The Doll (Track 09), Wilson Pass (Track 12), Vic In the Laptop Archive (Track 13)
Hopeful moment: You Guys Talk a Lot (Track 14), Good Night (Track 16)
Drama/sad moment: Desange Folder (Track 10), Last Hypno (Track 15)

Best Used In: Chaos.  Confusion.  Scenes where you can never feel too safe.  Zombie games can work, but that's assuming you aren't after quiet moments of fear. More Resident Evil than Silent Hill.   Best used by those who are very willing to give extra effort in familiarizing themselves to the tracks, and knowing when the shifts occur.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Compromised : Wilderness of Mirrors

Wilderness of Mirrors

It was another Gamer Meet night (FB, G+)and with four players and only two hours to game, I realized that running Fiasco might prove to be a problem.   Thankfully, I had my laptop with me, which meant I had all the gaming pdfs I needed as options.  Wanting to find a minimum-to-no prep game, I pulled out John Wick's Wilderness of Mirrors.

The players were fascinated by the approach of the game, which had each one allocating their points to round out their Areas of Expertise.  I quickly explained the dice mechanic, and how Trust Dice was earned and very quickly, the players were grinning in anticipation on how the story would unfold.  When I explained how they actually have Planning as part of the game itself, they were eager to contribute to the story.

The Agents were all members of an Organization known as the M.O.D. Squad.
Original owners were known only as Mom and Dad, and had contacted Matt Rider, for a personal important mission.  He met with an Asian woman who wore some kind of holographic device that allowed the image of Mom or Dad to cover her face.  During such communication, she had no perception of the events.  This allowed her to be a discreet information/communication courtier.

The players opted for a slightly sci-fi touch to the game (think more Total Recall rather than Fifth Element) and so The Assignment was:  To copy 21 years worth of memories of the target, Jessica Drew, without her knowing.  The players expand on the assignment:  She is one of the smartest people in the planet.  She shied from men all her life due to her knowledge.  Most found her too intimidating and smart.

Once mission was successful, Matt Rider was to contact Asian contact:  7714 and report.

The Agents were:

Matt Rider, played by Carl.  He was an ex-military operative who inherited the M.O.D. Squad from the previous M.O.D. Squad from 1960s.  With an interplanetary scope, the organization accepts missions through-out the solar system.  In his late 40s, Matt Rider was still happy to approaching things with the old school mindset.  There are no available images of Matt Rider.  Areas of Expertise:  (Saturn) (Mars)

Nate Hawthorne, played by Erich.  He was a Criminal Contractor who started young on Mars.  Got into too much heat so was forced to leave the planet.  Handling freelance gigs now.   He is in his mid 20s  and was of a mixed heritage.    Areas of Expertise:  (Vulcan) (Pluto)

Jane Black, played by Mahar.  He was a master con artist who has long been handling cons on her own, but many of the jobs she used to get were suddenly taken from her and given instead to Justin Nix.  She was a blonde and beautiful specialist who could talk her way out of anything.  Area of Expertise:  (Mercury)

Richard Nix, played by Justin.  Analyst for corporate intelligence and security.  Joining M.O.B. squad was his exit strategy from previous line of work.   He is Asian and in his late 30s.  Area of Expertise: (Saturn) (Mercury) (Pluto)

Quickly, the players mapped out the plan for the mission:

The group acquires a location in Mars, where they host a private party that is invitation only.  They spread planted media, social media chatter, and rumors to make it sound like the biggest even ever, with an exclusive rave, and limited invitations.  They hold it at a water world Resort in Mars with canyons surrounded by massive waterfalls.

They reach out to Melissa Heaver, her best friend, and make sure she also has an invite.  They arrange it for Melissa Heaver to acquire a hotel room which she will share with Jessica.  In comes "Edith" (an identity that Jane Black assumes) who will be the Personal Assistant of Melissa Heaver as well as her make-up go-to girl.  "Edith" is an established identity who has handled the cosmetic concerns of a number of A-list Hollywood celebrities.  Once the three arrive at the party, Richard Nix is to then romance his way to gain Melissa and Jessica's attention, and eventually spirit Jessica away from the party.  He is to slip in a drug to knock her out or make her forget, and given the party, that can be explained away as recreational drug use which happened during the night out.

Nate Hawthrone reminds them however that the Memory-Machine they need to use is in the University of Mars, and given it being big and clunky, means she has to be brought TO the machine.  Richard Nix is to deliver the unconscious Jessica to the University where Nate Hawthorne will do the extraction.  While out, "Edith" is to entertain, if not replace Melissa, and be the life of the party, to act as an alibi of them not having left.

Then, bring her back to Richard, who will wake her up back at the room after placing a tramp stamp on her, to further push the "wild night".

The mission begins.
Off the bat, a complication arises as the team learns that Melissa has plans to sneak out of the party because she has a date she wants to be with.   At the hotel, a celebrity has arrived and used his fame to force the hotel to grant him access to the floor the team was using.  Jason Beiber III and his entourage bully their way to get the room they want, forcing Matt Rider to dress up as one of the staff, to buy time for Nate Hawthorne to reroute the key to work for the other room instead.

Jane Black realizes the main issue Melissa has.  Jason Beiber III, world-wide pop musician and dancer celebrity, is not the voice behind the talent.  His twin brother Justin Beiber II is.  But Justin, sadly, has no ability to dance at all, and thus has been delegated to just being the voice of the star.  Melissa and Justin, it seems, are secretly dating!

Back at the party, Richard Nix notices a second source of headaches to come.  A bunch of kids wearing the new Oogle Glasses appear: South Korean Gamers, who are terribly busy playing their World of Star Craft game while the party moves on.  And lastly, Richard notices automated Drone Cameras buzzing around, which can mean only one thing:  Bloggers.  They were sure to be like "extra watchdogs" monitoring the party's events.  The team would have to be careful not to be noticed.  He quickly informs the team.

Jane Black confirms on Spacebook that Justin and Melissa are dating, noticing the tell-tale signs of body language showing the interest the two have.  Matt Rider decides to push through with the mission even if he had received word that one of the agents may be compromised.   He is, however, unaware that Jane Black has a persona; vendetta against Richard Nix, given how Nix had stolen some "jobs" from her in the past.   Nate Hawthorne maps out a personal plan to wipe out Jessica Drew's memories which contain him, as the two had been dating in the past.

When the three women arrive, the plan moves into action, with Richard Nix moving into position to get the party started.  "Edith" accompanies Jessica to the hotel room, and gets her to drink the sleeping drug while Nate Hawthorne shadows Melissa who meets up with Justin in the gift shop.  Nate takes some photos of the two and forwards them anonymously to the Bloggers to fill up the net with buzz.   With Jessica ready, "Edith" then guides the two girls to the dance floor, ready for Richard's interception.  But Matt Rider digs into Jane Black's belongings out of suspicions she is the mole, and instead sees the pre-arranged "evidence" Jane had "left out in the open" about Richard Nix' "affiliations" with the Koreans.  She quickly meets with the Korean gamers and suggests Nix is working for the opposing team to have them lose, which gives the visual support she needs when she then uses her Area of Expertise that moment to convince the team that Richard Nix was once a Korean Sleeper Agent who may have finally reverted to his original programming.  Even Richard Nix himself believes the lie!

But before anyone else can do anything, explosives rock the place.  As it happens, Richard Nix had placed explosives earlier with the intent to have them detonate as a distraction if the team needed an out.  Instead they explode, and injure a number of the guests.  The commotion gives Nate Hawthorne the time to pull Jessica Drew out of the area and do the memory copying (after certain edits).  Jessica sees Richard Nix pinned under some of the rubble, and when he asks her for help, she simply walks away to leave him to die.  She informs Matt Rider that she's making her way to the exit, unawares that Matt Rider has his own plans.   Rider arrives where Nix was to find a trail of blood.  The man must have crawled out somehow to survive.  As he follows the trail, Nix sees Rider the same moment Rider shoots him to kill him.  But Rider does not realize Nix still has the last laugh.

A secondary set of explosions rock the place, releasing a gas agent that quickly spreads out in all directions. Nate Hawthorne sees this, tries to call the team but gets no one responding.    Jane Black rushes outside the building to see Matt Rider on the escape vehicle, already driving away from the scene.  She hails him down, but he guns the engine instead.  The mist reach her and she drops to the ground overwhelmed by the gas.

Jane wakes up with the hospital crew helping her out of the bed.  She was in a risky state at first, but thankfully recovered quickly enough.  She then left the country with enough savings from the final mission to buy an island in the Bahamas.  She walked down the beach and enjoyed the warm sun on her skin...

... as she remained writhing on the street, poisoned, and lost in a dream.

Matt Rider meets with Agent 7714, and as he enters the room for the meeting he finds it empty.  None was aware that he was the actual double agent, who wanted to eliminate the team, get the memories, and sell it to the highest bidder.  Sadly, he neglected one last member of the team.  He realizes none of the nearby buildings have anyone in them as well.  Nor any traffic in the streets.  It was a trap.  And two city blocks with the area Matt Rider was in as the epicenter erupt in a series of controlled explosions.  The media outlets report it as a gas main leak.  But the truth was, it was Richard Nix who had made precautions in the past that if he were to die, a team was to go out and eliminate the leader of the last mission he was in.  (The player, just before dying, used his Area of Expertise: Mars to deliver the killing blow even after he died)

And Nate Hawthorne hands the memory disk to Mom and Dad, who ask him how he feels to be in charge of the M.O.D. squad now.  Nate wisely gives no comment, and walks away.

EDIT:  According to one player, there are some flaws in how I recalled the ending.
Here's the ending as per one of the players: Erich.

"Nate had the copies of the memories. He gave one to the organization and walked away, went into hiding, learned from the memories. Then he finally was ready to sell them to the highest bidder... And that is when Matt Rider blew him up with the city block."
But I insist I recall Justin being the one who used the Hitman Expert move.  I recall him asking if he can use it even if he was already dead. :-)  And I said yes.  So he used to get back at Matt Rider.    But yeah I think Nate didn't just hand the memories back asap.  He kept them for a while, went into hiding, and eventually sold it to the highest bidder, which was Mom and Dad.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Soundtrack Suggestion: Silent Hill 3 - Akira Yamaoka & Interlace

Silent Hill 3
by Akira Yamaoka & Interlace

The third Silent Hill soundtrack deserves a lot of love.  And yes, just so it is clear, this is the soundtrack to the game, NOT the movies.   But I will admit, I felt frustrated with many of the tracks in this album.

With twenty five tracks, which is almost an hour and fifteen minutes of music, this soundtrack has the great disturbing qualities of the first two, but the reusable and less intrusive mood building tracks that can make a game heart-pounding.  But sadly, this also is the composers foray into adding vocal tracks, and I felt he kinda got too excited with that given how many tracks here sound better had there been NO vocals in it.     For those who aren't aware of the game's storyline, Silent Hill 3 is set seventeen years after the events of the first (not the second) Silent Hill game.  The young child which the protagonist in the first game finds has grown up to be Heather, a brave teenage girl who learns that the cult may have actually ALLOWED her to be taken for their fiendish purposes.

The opening track, Lost Carol (Track 01) is a haunting a Capella thirty-seven second vocal track by Melissa Williamson (she's Mary Elizabeth McGlynn in other sources). The track is loopable and deliciously vibrant with just enough sadness to fit say a scene of characters overlooking a scene of devestation, or a montage of images of brutal violence, or even a sleeping child floating in zero gravity.  The next track,  You're Not Here (Track 02) is the first of many vocal tracks which breaks the approach of the first few Silent Hill soundtracks.   These songs may or may not prove useful to game masters, depending on how they feel towards tracks that actually have lyrics.  I personally only use such songs to represent "credits" rolling when a game ends.  Understandable lyrics confuse, complicate or distract players in my opinion.  Or worse, get them to sing along rather than feel the mood.   Please Love Me.. Once More (Track 08) is a terrific track that works really well as your "things are still normal" track.  And yes, it nicely loops good.  There's a progressive attitude to the track that suggests the players are "doing something right" and we all know we want our players in a horror game to "think" they have a chance, right?  Innocent Moon (Track 10) is one minute and thirty-eight seconds of disturbing sounds and soft piano keys that nicely builds tension without resorting to shock value.  Sadly, looping works but becomes obvious given its slight shift in tension level.  Never Forgive Me, Never Forget Me (Track 14) is a personal fave of mine.  The song makes me thing of being lost, feeling hope fading, and yet not necessarily feel like I am in danger.  It resonates a sadness for me with its synthesized keys.  It uses a repeating melody nicely, almost music box in appeal without being typical.  Walk On Vanity Ruins (Track 16) makes me quickly think noir mystery.  It would have been perfect had it not been for the choice of adding some background vocals taken from the game. Thankfully, if you play it low enough, just to resonate but not overwhelm players, the vocals sounds like just random echoes.  Hometown (Track 24) is a terrific rescoring of the surprise intro song from the first soundtrack to have male vocals (by Joe Romersa).  

But again.  This is a review for gaming.  So yeah, so many tracks that could have been more useful.  I love the soundtrack, I have to repeat that.  I really love it.  But I sadly feel unless you like the music itself, this might be a soundtrack to skip if you're just looking at it for gaming.

Silent Hill 3 OST track suggestions
WTF moment: Clockwork Little Happiness (Track 07), A Stray Child (Track 09), Innocent Moon (Track 10), Prayer (Track 15), Heads #2 (Track 18), Memory Of The Waters (Track 19), Flower Crown of Poppy (Track 21)
Introspective/calm moment:   Lost Carol (Track 01), Float Up From Dream (Track 03 - game vocals), End of Small Sanctuary (Track 04), Dance With Night Wind (Track 13), I Want Love (Studio Mix) (Track 24 - vocals)
Tense/mystery moment: Breeze In Monochrome Night (Track 05), Sickness Unto Foolish Death (Track 06), Maternal Heart (Track 11), Walk On Vanity Ruins (Track 16 - game vocals), Rain of Brass Petals (Track 20)
Hopeful moment: You're Not Here (Track 02 - vocal), Please Love Me... Once More (Track 08), Hometown (Track 23 - vocals)
Drama/sad moment: Letter From The Lost Days (Track 12 - vocal), Never Forgive Me, Never Forget Me (Track 14), I Want Love (Track 17 - vocals), Sun (Track 21 - purely game vocal track), Uneternal Sleep (Track 22)

Best Used In: Modern horror games.  Or games that twist reality and perception.  The vocal tracks can work nicely to give the game a television show appeal (if you want to run games that feel like episodes of Supernatural, Buffy, and the like).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

System Shopped: Death Cards - Any Other System

Death Cards
System Shopped: Any Other System
by Tobie Abad

For those who have played Our Last Best Hope, you've probably encountered what are called the Death Cards in the game.  The Death Cards are an awesome game mechanic which allows the player to "defeat" a Threat automatically by dying in the way the card mentions it to happen.   It allows you to have those dramatic moments of self-sacrifice (among others) where a character's death allows the story to continue to its fruition.  The  Death Cards have a second mechanic, which is to CANCEL a death your character should suffer to a later point in time in the story, where you then play the card and narrate how your character actually dies in fulfillment of his fate as written in the card.

And lastly, once you are dead, you still play in the game.  You have scenes as flashbacks.  You have scenes as recalled moments.  You get to still play as part of the game's undeclared history.

Now let me say this:  The idea is GENIUS.  Pure genius.

It allows players to embrace death as an event which may have heroic potential.  It allows players to even suffer from stupid deaths and dice mishaps and not feel like the game has suddenly turned into a massive bowl of suck.  It allows players who have long worked on their character and invested so much time in their development to die, but not necessarily end the game.

So, yes, why not add the concept of Death Cards to your game?

I dunno about you, but I don't like my
players feeling the game I ran felt like this.
Disclaimer:  Tobie, this sucks.Yes, I know you guys are out there.  The ones who feel that if the dice say you die, no matter how heroic, pathetic, or undramatic the moment is, death by dice means death.  Respect the dice! Allowing players to "not die" makes the threat of death meaningless!  It makes the idea of death and danger less frightening.   Well, you know what, Our Last Best Hope itself makes the cards a central mechanic of the game, and YET the fear of dying too soon and losing against the Threat is still there.  Why does it work?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact when you play OLBH, you go there knowing you will try to win, but if you die, then you die with an awesome scene nonetheless.   It reminds you games are about having fun as a group, and not being beholden to the die roll.  I understand it can be fun to laugh at the player whose character died such a cruddy way in an epic saga.  But I've learned if feels more awesome to laugh as a group with the player who died but still did an epic moment.  So yes, if you feel this shop ain't for you, that's fine.  I respect that.   No need to say this idea is crap.  Just don't use it.  Thank you.

So, let's recap on the mechanics of the cards.
1) Every player, at the very start of the campaign takes one card.  They are not allowed to exchange or replace the card.  They can read it, and it is best they keep it to themselves.

2) During any point of time in the game where they are about to die, or were supposed to die from a resulting action, etc, they can reveal the card, describe how they don't die (yet) and are now committed to making sure they portray their death scene with the card's details as the framework in the future.

Now, in OLBH, dying has the perk of getting dice for the final roll in the game (a system which we need not force into this shop), but what we can do is this:  dying allows you to option the GM for a new character, one which you may (or not) introduce in your death sequence!  That way, the new character can feel invested immediately to the current cast in one way or another.

Example #1:
In a fantasy game, my wizard is with the group and is hoping to defeat the Lich King.  My Death Card is "You shall die because you did not listen."    Now, as the party journeys to the Lich King's lair, my wizard fails to notice a trap and unfortunately the damage roll scores high enough that I am dead.  Such a dramatically disappointing moment.  Its like if Gandalf died in Lord of the Rings because he tripped on his way down the steps from Bilbo's home.  So rather than the GM having to retcon things (he's handling more than enough already!) I show my Death Card and state, "The trap hurts me but not enough to kill me.  I however insist to the party that I can still push on."

Later in the game, the group finally faces of against one of the Lich King's guardians.  I decide it can be dramatic enough (and yes, Gandalf is my guide after all) so as the guardian prepares to use a special move, I yell at everyone to run ahead while I handle the guardian.  The other players realize I'm now using the Death Card, so they allow me to have that dramatic moment as they rush off up the steps.  I hear one player call out, "Don't do this!" but I. Don't. Listen.  Boom.  Death Card achieved.  My wizard dies as I unleash one final spell to defeat the guardian as well.

Drama.  I lost a character.  But I don't feel like it was due to a shitty roll.

Example #2
Let's say the same scene above unfolded with the trap.  So I played by Death Card.  I decide to have the later scene be a chance to introduce my new character.  So in the scene with the guardian, as we fight the guardian, I can hold up the Death Card (to remind the GM and other players) and declare, "There is a trapped elven druid in a steel cage above the battle chamber.  The Elf calls out asking for help."  The group then knows my Wizard is finally going to die in this scene, and the rescued elf will be my new character so the game can proceed.

Now, yes, I can hear already some readers saying, "Yes, the death was cheapened all right.  Look, you moved on to your new character so quickly."  But friends, realize that was merely because I wanted a quick and dirty example.   If I were to run an actual game and have my Death Card used, I'd actually have my character death happen, have a game session or two where I'm playing just as flashback moments with the other characters (cause I'll spend that time creating a new character, and letting the GM have his okay), before finally introducing the new one.  The grieving process can be portrayed in flashbacks.  Or maybe even mourned only once the game is over.

Okay, I'm thinking of trying it.
That's great!  Now here's the thing, since Our Last Best Hope is available on Drive Thru RPG, I say get the very affordable book and use the Death Cards as listed there.  To avoid issues, I've decided to try writing up my own list of other possible Death Cards here.

You will die…

Admitting long hidden feelings of love.
You will die…

Blaming someone for your death.
You will die…

With so much anger and hate, your last words are that of rage.

You will die…

Vocally wishing you chose a different path in life.

You will die…

Inspiring others to fight harder and win.
You will die…

Broken.  A failure in all respects.
You will die…

Abandoned.  Alone.  Or at least believing you have been left behind.

You will die…

Inches away from killing your bitter foe.
You will die…

Only after finally mortally wounding a foe.
You will die…

In the arms of an ally.
You will die…

By the hands of an ally (forced, accidental or intentional).

You will die…

Of an ailment you’ve long hidden from everyone else.

Now again, the Death Cards are NOT forced or fated to happen, unless you choose to play them.  And yes, the cards do not have an actual mechanic effect other than to inject a dose of drama to your game (and in some cases even expand on the untold back story between characters.)

Have fun with the dying!
And once again, thank you Mark Truman for an awesome game.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Blade and Silk e02 : Blood and Honor

Blade and Silk
Episode Two
"Another Province"

Blood and Honor

In another part of Old Japan, another Province finds itself caught in the tragic web of the Jorogumo.  Earlier, we learned of how the Kinitchi Clan fared against the spiders.  This time, another Province deals with their sticky reach.

The Province of Kaneshiro ("Gold Castle") under the Daimyo Kuroshinzo, whose madness made him somewhat unpredictable became the focus of today's tragedy.   While Cunning, the Daimyo suffered from a lack of Samurai to watch over his lands, the Rice Farm, the Gambling Den, and a Dojo.   But as the Province known best for its Meibutsu: Rice, the place would discover how rice too becomes the focus of the opening act.

Kuroshinzo's Samurai:
The Daimyo's Hatamoto: Katsuo ("Victory") played by Erich.
Rank 2.  Highest Virtue: Cunning at 5.  Weakness: Wisdom
None of Us is As Great as All of Us
Best Sword Stays In the Scabbard
One Word Can Warm the Winter
The General owned a Good Katana, and was Irreproachable.

His Ashigaru were Toro and Kyo, whose loyalty could not be questioned.

The Daimyo's Oniwaban:  Okage ("Secret") played by Rocky.
Rank 2. Highest Virtues: Beauty and Cunning both at 4.  Weakness: Strength
None of Us is As Great as All of Us
Best Sword Stays In the Scabbard
If my Dog Knew My Plans
The Oniwaban owned a Poor Katana, and was blessed by a Personal Ancestor (I Have No Magic...)

The Daimyo's Takumi:  Yukino ("Courage") played by Mahar.
Rank 2. Highest Virtue: Beauty at 4. Weakness: Prowess
None of Us is As Great as All of Us
If my Dog Knew My Plans
One Word Can Warm the Winter
She owned a Poor Katana, and held the Daimyo's Favor.

Clan Heraldry: Rice Stalk of Gold

Truths about the Clan:
Province isolated from the rest.  
Friendly to Jesuit Missionaries.
Clan was merged by marriage of two former warring clans, Yamashiro ("Mountain Castle") and Kanekawa ("Gold River")

SEASON: SPRING  (Daimyo is KIND this Season)
The story opens with the Hatamoto standing in a rice field to judge a scenario where three people were four people were present.  The wife of a farmer was selling rice to an outsider, and her husband was accusing her of having an affair with another farmer.  The travelling merchant himself claimed to have no knowledge of the rice being that of the Daimyo's.   At first the Hatamoto was at a loss on how to approach the subject, but thankfully the Oniwaban was in the area.  Quickly, he recognized the people and noted that the wife was the former Onmyoji of the late Emperor himself!  The two samurai soon determined that Muzuo, the traveler, had come to purchase rice because a deficit existed at the closest other Province.    When the samurai inspected the rice, they discovered it tampered with, which the wife Akia admitted to have been the one who had done so.  "Herbs and metals, lord Samurai" she explained, "The rice is made to last longer, and treated to serve the needs of the customer."  Feeling the matter settled can now be settled, the Oniwaban walked off and left the Hatamoto to make his pronouncements.  The General demanded the rice to still be sold, with the proper cut given to the Daimyo.  Then calmly insisted the couple visit the Takumi to settle their social dispute.

The other Province, Ukita Province, is known to have a Kind Daimyo.  Most unusual is how she is a woman, who rose to power after a dispute with the former Daimyo.  She killed the Daimyo, an act of revenge it was said to be for her family who had been massacred by him.  And prior to this, it was believed she served as his Hatamoto.  The deficit in rice is due to spending more than the Province needs to.  For what, however, was unclear.

Elsewhere, the building of a new Geisha House was underway.  The Daimyo had permitted its construction after the Takumi hinted at her hopes of seeing one built.  Jealous of the attentions, the Seneschal of the Daimyo, Shintaro.  Dressed in his pink and violet claws, the Karo uses his slippery tongue to twist the building of the Geisha House in a manner he prefers.  Sadly, he fails to realize the Daimyo will hate how the Geisha House faces the wrong heading, and will be fully aware that it was his call that had it built in that manner.  The Takumi allows herself a silent victory.

The Daimyo calls for his samurai and there, informs them all of an undertaking he wishes them to perform.  With the Oniwaban visiting ahead of the rest, the Daimyo explains that the Takumi and the Hatamoto are to deliver the Clan Blade as a gift to the Daimyo of Ukita Province.    The blade is exquisite and the gathered samurai silently consider what they know of the blade:

It belonged to the Kanekawa Clan (a fact Okage recognized from his childhood since he was of that Clan prior to the unification).  It was crafted under the order of the Emperor himself.  It is said no man has ever lost while wielding the sword, although the blade has never been drawn.  The last one who carried it, legend says, died horribly.

And the last fact declared to be true but none of the Samurai were aware of was:  The sword no longer had a blade.

The Daimyo however reminds the samurai the visit has a two-fold reason:  To ascertain if the Daimyo of Ukita has gone mad.  The Daimyo, it is said, claims to believe in spirits, or ghosts, or spider creatures from the forest.  "Find out if there is truth, before I take any further actions.  Then offer the gift if her sensibilities are sound."

With the Oniwaban off to visit the Province, the Takumi and the Hatamoto decide to call upon an unexpected ally to watch over the Province in their absence:  The Jesuit priests that have settled within the Province with the Daimyo's permission. They have established a small chapel in the lands after Yukino established ties with them for an exchange of arts, culture and science.  The Jesuits were impressed with how their Daimyo handled things.  The Jesuits had their own guards, and with the help of Masuo, a young boy who had been among the Jesuits for quite some time as a translator, the samurai discovered the power of the foreigner's weapons:  Dragonsticks, they were called.  Padre Francis Thomas agrees to watch over the Daimyo in their absence, and promises them they will do all in their power to keep him safe.

In Ukita, the Oniwaban arrives at a noodle house and was about to enjoy something to eat when a bunch of bandits arrived and began throwing their weight around. With a carefully selected choice of words, Okage succeeds in dismissing the fools without drawing his own blade, and this act is witnessed by the Kaishaku of Ukita Province, Takahanta.  The Executioner steps inside and clips the Clan Sword close to his body, a visual declaration that he has not come for a fight, and after introductions (where he reveals a level of Cunning and Wisdom suited to a Spymaster) admits he has worries of the Daimyo's sanity.  The Spymaster however knows him more than he realizes.   Okage is aware that Takahanta is the Daimyo's brother, and that he watches over her as her Yojimbo as well.    He offers to introduce him to the Daimyo, an offer he readily accepts.

The meeting goes well, with the Daimyo Mitsune taking his arrival with much welcome.  She clearly has feelings for Kuroshinzo, and does truly believe in spider spirits which she claimed had abducted her when she was young.  She shares how the Province struggled to be freed from their yoke and it was only after the burning of the rice that the spiders became less demanding with their visits.  It was only with the treated rice from Kaneshiro that the spiders ceased their assault.  The Oniwaban begins to realize there is something that does not mesh with their mission.  Given the secretive sale of rice to this Province, an act he feels that would have been impossible without their Daimyo's blessing, it would be foolish to think the Daimyo did not believe in the spirit stories, when the herbs and metals mixed in the rice seemed to have helped weakened the excursions of the spiders. There was an angle they were not seeing.

The following morning, the Hatamoto and the Takumi made their preparations for the journey to Ukita Province.  With the Clan Sword wrapped carefully and tied behind the Courtier, the two traveled through the thick forest and hoped for a peaceful journey.  What they encounter was at first laughable, until it became clear the initial threat was merely a feint to disarm them.  The group of bandits were led by two young boys, Kaizoku (who used a length of chain with a hook) and Ichigo (who used a pair of short blades).  The group, numbering ten, demanded for the sword.  But when Ichigo realizes the two are samurai, he tries to talk Kaizoku out of challenging them.  The Takumi shares a long speech of how they can simply travel to Kaneshiro province and there, look for the Karo.  "If you are willing to work, I am certain the Province is willing to pay and feed you." The bandits seemed convinced and as they slowly made their way back the way the two samurai came, that was when the first few poison darts were launched!

The Hatamoto plants rushes to help the bandits who are brought down by the poison, while the Takumi parries the initial assault as twelve men armed with swords descend from the trees.  The Hatamoto grabs one of the bows of the bandits and begins launching an onslaught of pain upon the attackers, taking down two or three with each release of the string.  Their leader, a Samurai, is clipped by Katsuo's arrow and withdraws.  The Takumi maneuvers into a safer location and by the end of the conflict, two are kept alive for questioning.  They break easily and admit to having been sent by someone called Seikichi.  They came for the sword.   They set up camp to rest for the night and do what they can to treat the wounded bandits.

The following morning, the Oniwaban realizes the others have not arrived.  He studies the castle of Ukita province for any tactical advantages to note.  The floorboards creaky.  A lot of the walls are stone.  The  main hall with the throne can hide bowmen above to ambush those approaching.   And based on walking around, the dimensions indicate there are secret passages.  There are shinto symbols any many other wards around the castle.   He learns of the former Samurai that served at this Province, of the Hatamoto Hokusai, the Seneschal Yaguchi and the Spy Master Nezuri, who had all entered the woods to find the spiders but never returned.

The camp was attacked during the night.  The Hatamoto awakens to find one of the old samurai of Ukita Province holding his katana to his throat.  The old man identifies himself as Nezuri and calmly asks the General if he is willing to give up the Clan Blade for the woman.  But when Katsuo's honor demands he protect the blade, Yukino realizes she will have to find a way to free herself while the General safely delivers the blade.  

More truths about the Spiders are remembered as the Samurai all harken back to what they know of these spirits.  The treated rice held it at bay.  The treatment transformed it into something the spirits could not approach.  The spiders were trapped in the forests, not hiding in them!   Their targets were virgins.  But these were not just typical meals they devoured.  They needed to win the affection of the virgin.   Rejection would mean death.   They were territorial and extremely protective of their ground.  They would slay any other spider they see in their lands.

But again, the Daimyo knew of these as true.  And had been sending the rice.  He was wooing Daimyo Kitsune.

The Oniwaban remembered facts about the former onmyoji which he had overlooked.  She was in the Province in hiding. She believed there still was one of the royal blood of the Emperor.  Someone who can rule.  She hid the Emperor's Seal, and vowed only to reveal it when the bloodline resurfaced.

And that was who Daimyo Mitsune was.  She and her brother were children of the Emperor.  They were sent to Ukita to be raised in secret.  Which meant, their own Daimyo wanted to marry into the line.  He wanted to gain the seat of the Emperor.  And if he vanquished the spider, it would be the beginning of his legend.

But there was still one last detail that the spymaster could not put down.

Okage speaks Mitsune and her brother, Takahanta.  Given the nature of the gift, Mitsune was to turn down the present, but Okage suggested to wait until the gift was formally presented.   And as they consider their stance, they see a pillar of smoke rise from the forest.  A sign perhaps of where the spider lay.  "We simply happen to both fight the same foe in the woods.  This is not a formal alliance."  The two parties agree and head there.

Yukino awoke to find Nezuri taunting her about her predicament.  But while her Courage holds, tides shift away from her favor when one of the Hatamoto's Ashigaru is dragged into the scene, a prisoner himself.  Toro had earlier witnessed a betrayal, as their Daimyo attacked the Seneschal, and manifested a clearly inhuman form.  Toro ran to send word to his General, while Kyo charged to try and defeat the beast.  The Daimyo Kuroshinzo himself turned out to be a Spider as well.  And it had hoped to claim the Royal Blood of the Emperor.  To prove the seriousness of their threats, Nezuri kills the young warrior before the Samurai, and promises her death is not far behind.

While the former samurai considered their actions, Yukino finds help in the form of Kaizoku and Ichigo, who had snuck after her abductors.  While one headed up to try and pull her from the webs she was strung upon, Ichigo had the (not quite smart) idea to burn the sharp spikes below that were to impale Yukino had she broken free.  The smoke alerted the enemy to their attempted escape, but as fate would have it, informed the Oniwaban and the rest of where the spider lay.

The other Samurai arrive, with the battle in the woods being quite short once the katanas were drawn.  Okage and Katsuo eventually face off with the deadly Hokusai who had an Archer's Eye.  But while he aimed for Okage, the Spy Master noted all his deficiencies brought about by age and experience, from his wounds to his single eye and the clear touch of fear in his stance.  Even as the arrow was loosed, the spy master did not bother to dodge.  He knew the arrow had no chance of hitting him.

Katanas clashed, and Katsuo was the clear victor.  He senses the other Hatamoto's shame and realizes the Hatamoto wishes to at least die as a samurai even if he knew now how far from Honor he had fallen.  Katsuo grants it with a single stroke.

And finally, the spider.  Seikichi snarls as the Katsuo and Yukino arrive to prevent its escape.  The Daimyo Mitsune arrives as well, and she draws her blade to challenge the monster.  Seikichi bears her blad-sharp appendages and warns them that death is all that shall come for them.  No duels to come in this one.  The monster deserves no honor.  But as Mitsune moves to slay the monster, the monster's own strike closes in to fatally wound the bearer or the royal blood.  Katsuo angles his blade to parry the monster's blow.  He succeeds.  But as Seikichi planned, the angle forces his blade to touch Daimyo Mitsune's.  As the Spider died, is croaks out a death rattle of joy that the two samurai will have no choice BUT to duel against each other.  "Your traditions bind you far tighter than any web I could have spun.."

Mitsune bows and asks that the duel be settled in the future.  That for now, both parties have chanced upon each other "by chance."  And that they should best return to their own Provinces.   To fulfill the duty, Yukino mentions the present.  Mitsune formally rejects the gift.

And Okage throws Takahanta a veiled reminder that Royal Blood has its responsibilities.  And hints that he is aware that he is the brother of the Daimyo.  If there was anyone meant to regain the seat of the Emperor, it was not Mitsune.  It was him.


They return to Kaneshiro to discover that their Daimyo Kuroshinzo is dead.  As it turns out, Kyo did not fail in doing his duty.   Instead, as he moved into strike the monster that attacked the now dead Seneschal, his skill with the blade was far better than the Spider's prowess.  Kuroshinzo was dead and slain by the Ashigaru's skill.  The Clan was in trouble of being divided back into the two warring clans as factions began to call for justice, while others (perhaps having heard of rumors of the Daimyo being inhuman) called him a hero.  The Jesuits with their rifles positioned themselves as a neutral party to retain the Province's sense of order, at least until the three remaining Samurai determine what is to happen now and who is to take the seat of the Daimyo in Kaneshiro Province.

The tragedy continues.

Game Notes:
First, amazing game.  My favorite moment was when the Oniwaban uses all his wagers to inflict upon the archer reasons why he will miss, down to the last being, "It is hard to strike your opponent effectively with a bow when you only have one functioning eye."  Given I've never described the guy in detail save for this clothing and the bow as a choice of weapon, it felt very apt for the player to reflect how the opponent was old, used to using the bow even if his effectiveness was impaired by his Winter aspects of age.

The twist of Daimyo Mitsune having Royal Blood was another player initiated fact.  The three players were really getting the hang of using their wagers, it can get scary!

I was hoping to use these pieces for art to color up this blog entry, but I decided it would be better to just share the link to you guys as a possible inspiration for your own Blood and Honor sessions.  Enjoy the works of Junshan Ink.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Recruitment #08

Recruitment #08
Lacuna, Part I. The Birth of Mystery and the Girl from Blue City

The Ven had learned of the Veth's theatrical adaptation of the life of Kithranus Yvarai, and with the passage of Winter came new faces, old faces, and renewed challenges.  And before anything else can happen, we cut to a commercial break.

This is the video I then played and had them watch from my iPAD:

And once the commercial ended, immediately played the track Rendezvous from The Devil's Advocate soundtrack again to signal, we were actually playing Lacuna.

You read that right.  I ran a Houses of the Blooded game, but suddenly switched gears, and revealed to the players they were merely watching a televised show called Houses of the Blooded and were actually in the reception room of Lacuna.  Given how I've always approached my Lacuna games with a meta touch,  and how the same players were in both games, I knew they would love a sudden twist like this!

With agents Harper, Currier and Mason at the Reception area, the three watch as the Receptionist arrives and apologizes for arriving so late.  She invites them all to grab some food, and to prepare for a few minor tests that Mythography requires them to undergo.  Wisely choosing not to ask further questions (such as "What is Mythography?") given their clearance levels, Agent Harper however inquires if he is to be given a promotion given his accumulated Commendation Points.  Harper is approved to become promoted to Team Leader and is given access to the Technique: Synchronicity.  The tests are then assigned to each one, and all are warned they are only allowed three attempts to answer their tests.

Given the recurrence of Static, Mason suggests to the Receptionist to inform Control that the keyword is Tangerine.  That way, in the future, any calls can be checked for authenticity.

Agent Mason is given the following numbers: 2 9 3 1 8 4 3 6 5 7
And he is asked to inform them what the next number in the sequence should be.

Agent Currier is given the following words:  Thorn, Shout, Seat and Stew.
And she is asked to inform them in which word can the Pole Star can be found.

Finally, Agent Harper is given nine cubes and told to arrange them in ten rows of three.

At first all of them get their initial answers wrong, and are punished with a loss of Force.  Eventually, Mason realizes there are two number sequences in the set, and after separating 2,3,4,5.. from 9,18,36,7.. he realizes the next number should be "2."   Currier eventually realizes the words are anagrams, and correctly chooses "Thorn" as the answer.   Both open their eyes to realize they already ARE in the Blue City.

Strapped to a chair with leather straps, and placed in a chamber with clear plastic/glass walls, both found themselves struggling to answer the riddles as a challenge thrown to them by a Mr. Philsbury, who walks on a catwalk suspended above them all, and chides them for trying to capture him.  "Your company clearly needs to be taught a lesson.  In this part of the City, I am in charge.  Tell your leaders that if I ever see any new Mystery Agents again in this area, I will kill them."   Harper is still strapped to his chair and lost in the "dream" as he struggles to solve the riddle.  Philsbury gives the team one last chance to save Harper, and he throw them a riddle.  If any of them comes up with the correct answer in time, Philsbury will allow them to leave.  "General Harper is the Team Leader who is accused of treason and is sentenced to death. He is allowed to make a final statement, after which he will be shot if the statement is false or will be hung if the statement is true. Harper makes his final statement and is released.  What is the statement?"  Mason and Currier ponder on the possible answers, and Harper thankfully figures it out.  "I am lying."  The paradox of the statement forces Philsbury to let them go, and they awaken in the Slab, dizzy and weak but alive.

Vice-Director Pope visits them, and quickly tells them he does not have much time.  He tells them there is a message for Miner and he quickly whispers it to them:

It's always 1 to 6,
it's always 15 to 20,
it's always 5,
but it's never 21,
unless it's flying.

And realizing someone is at the door, he exits with the use of a Lacuna device! As the Mystery Agents stare at each other in shock, they slowly realize they are STILL in the Blue City and they still have their Lacuna devices.  It begins to rain and thunder rumbles in the sky.  The Mystery Agents rush to the window and look outside and see there are letter-shaped buildings in the distance.   Gas suddenly is pumped into the room and the group unanimously votes to escape!

Shattering the window open, the Agents realize the side of the building they are on is the slanted inner portion of a massive letter Y.  They slide down the side and at a lower level, consider their moves.  The lower level shows a large room with hundreds of people with headsets in front of computers.  A rumbling sound rises from the side of the building and the agents see some hybrid hovercraft/helicopter emerge with spotlights trained at them.  The vehicle launches massive claw-like hooks that attempt to snatch them.  Shattering the lower level window, all the Agents leap into the room to avoid the claws.

The nearest people to the agents happens to be a woman with the name tag: Kira.  The people after him are named Kilo and Kato.  Their computers have a glass panel for a keyboard, which seems to respond to their touches.  The screens show names of Mystery Agents, and their vitals.   "Are you Control?" Harper asks aloud but gets no response.  A door slams open as security rushes inside.  Currier is quickly taken down by a launched webbing of sorts that electrocutes her.  Mason grabs one of the nearby personnel and asks, "Are you Mythography?  We know about the Eyes!"  The personnel hands him something just before he too is knocked unconscious by an electric webbing.  Harper hits the ground last as he tries to trash the computers and fight to escape.

They awake once again.  The Slab.  The white walls, white floor and white ceiling gives everything an antiseptic look.  Even the personnel are all in white.  One particularly large chamber is labelled Shawaf.  And the others can clearly see more and more people on the Slab, all hooked up to tubes and wires, and seemingly unconscious   And this time, they are escorted by the Receptionist towards a doorway.  The receptionist calmly tells them that they've been pulled from the project.  She explains they had all signed their bodies in for a duration of time in exchange for something, but explained she cannot say more without breaching the contract.  But she reassures them they all willingly signed in.  Mason realizes he still has the thing the Mythography guy handed him and sees it is a blister pack of three blue gel pills.  He discretely swallows one and hands the two others to Harper and Currier.  Suddenly, perhaps as a result of the pill, Mason realizes he can contact Control.  They, it seems, are still inside the Blue City.  Control informs him, "Where are you calling from?  You are off the grid!"  Mason tried to get more info and realizes none of them have a Lacuna device to leave.   As they walk through a doorway, however, the connection with Control is cut.  It still works, however to reach Currier and Harper once they too swallow their own pills.  The end of the corridor is a white door that was invisible to the naked eye until it was opened.  The Receptionist tells them to step inside and that everything will be made clearer.   She remains outside.

The white room inside is nicely furnished to look like an office.  There were no other visible doors.  As the three walk inside and wait, the right white wall opens up as another white door makes itself visible.  A man steps out and introduces himself as Superintendent Pastor.  He calmly talks to the team and informs them that they have possibly overstepped certain bounds.  He then walks to the far wall and opens another hidden door to let another man in.  Stepping into the room in an all-white business suit is Agent Miner himself.  Miner however does not seem to recognize them  and tells Pastor that the three might best be dealt with IMMEDIATELY.  When Mason, however, calls Miner using his Caller Technique, Miner tells them to get ready to act one he brings down Pastor.  Mason quickly calls Currier and Harper and tells them to get ready.  He warns them helping them would compromise him, but he knows it has to be done.   Mason steps out of the room again, leaving the door open as he draws his pistol and shoots Pastor in the head.  With Pastor dead, Miner quickly tells the three they've dove all the way to White Level and that they will have to find their own way out because this far deep, the Company cannot pull them out.  Miner then vanishes in a Lacuna and leaves the three to find a way out.  Harper finds the folders on the table and grabs a hold of them to bring them with him.  Currier and Mason head out of the corridor to find what looks like a massive sound stage with lots of crew people dressed in all white.  Spotting what looks like a hard line on the wall, Currier starts running for it while Mason distracts all the crew by clapping his hands as they stare at the three.  "Good job," Mason calls aloud, "Great work guys.. we are very proud of what you have been doing."  But one of the staff panics and rushes for the nearest alarm.  Harper zips in and throws a fist into the guys face.  As they disable the crew man, Mason tries to over it up more by pointing at the man and telling everyone else, "Oh no!  He's a Mystery Agent!  Stop him!"

The crew rush to the poor man, while Currier calls Control on the line.  They get instructions on where to go, but Mason isn't quite trusting.  He asks the person on the line for the key word, and the person states:  Tangerine.  But Mason realizes now that scene earlier was still in the Blue City.  Whatever compromised position they were in began long before they were "taking the Mythography tests" and ironically the key word to identify control has become the key word to identify if the Control he was speaking with was still compromised.   Mason calls for Kira, who then suggests they try to exit via an older route.  She tells them to head back to the office, but as they cross the door's threshold, they find themselves in a familiar room with a small table on the center that holds a hard line.  The walls are filled with dancing lights, and the archway in the distance is blocked by thorns and vines.  The thorns and vines part to reveal Scarlet, who walks calmly into the room to talk to them.  Scarlet addresses them all, talking to them calmly about how they should by know know more than they were told.  About how they were all once Hostile Personalities.  About how they all have their share of strange forgotten points in their past.  She mentions how one of them once had many followers, like a cult.  How another was very... close to her.  "Stay," she offered, "And work for me instead, and I will let you know the truth.  All the truths you've been denied to hear."

They choose not to hear the truth.   None of them trust her.

Mason contacts Control, but Control is uncertain if she can trust them.  She asks them if Mason had a message for her, something she can use as proof to trust them.  "The answer is Die.  What was the question?"  It takes a beat before they realize they should repeat Pope's message, which were riddles that described a six-sided die.  Having succeeded, Control ejects them out.

And then they are out.

Back on the Slab, they all wake up.  Each one feels the crew quickly act to bring them back to unconsciousness.  However, they remain conscious, perhaps as a side-effect of the blue pill.  They realize the place looks precisely like that which they saw in White Level, only here the place was dark and less polished, with people moving their frozen bodies around.  They see a glimpse of the same massive chamber labeled SHAWAF and worse, see the crew disconnecting a man whose label reads MINER and a doctor giving a non-verbal signal suggesting that Agent Miner was dead.  The doctor covers him in a sheet, and the team finally drift back into deep quiet sleep.
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