Friday, September 13, 2019

TPK in the Scythian System: An ItO Campaign Retrospective

A black ops team organizes a monastic interfaith debate on a smugglers' space station...but it's really part of a covert operation against pirate traffickers! When the PC's patron arranges for a notorious militia leader to crash-land on an abandoned university world, the PCs move to arrest her...launching an intense firefight with snipers, grenades, psionic powers, and spear-wielding tribesmen in an abandoned academic department building! Finally, with 5 billion lives in the balance, our covert heroes launch a desperate bid to seal off a quantum prison vault leaking hideous psychic monsters; the showdown, in an ancient columned tower lying on its side, ends ... in a TPK

Uh oh.

My open-table, timed-session, twice-a-month short space opera campaign using hacked Into the Odd rules has now come and gone! In today's post, I sum up our final sessions, then I process the fact that I killed all my PCs and doomed an entire star system in our campaign finale.

+ In a later post, I may comment on various hacks and tweaks we made to the Into the Odd system, with thoughts on what worked well and what didn't; and set out some lessons learned about session design and table-play for time-limited, open table gaming.


I've summed up earlier sessions from this campaign here, here, and here. In a nutshell, the PCs are ragtag 'combat archaeologists' in the middle of a civil war in humanity's "Second Ecumene," a space-opera empire. Because of the war, real military assets have been deployed away from the Scythian System toward the front - so the system's Prefect has to rely on covert semi-professionals (like our PCs) to try to maintain order. And order is getting hard to come by; an aggressive militia and a sinister cult are grabbing more and more turf. Early in the campaign, however, the PCs learned that that neo-gnostic cult - the Church of the Glorious Transcendence - is weakening the locks on an ancient alien quantum-vault where the mysterious beings known now as 'Olmecs' sealed away their criminals eons ago. Should the locks fail entirely, the cult's homeworld would be flooded with ancient, vengeful, psychic creatures. The cult thinks such creatures would help them transcend fleshly embodiment and reach enlightenment. The cult is wrong. Way back in Session 1, players learned that their characters' efforts would decide the fate of 5 billion lives on the cult's homeworld. 

Sessions 4 and 5, however, focused on efforts to restore public order on the System Prefect's behalf.

In Session 4, the Prefect's office deployed the party on an urgent mission to take out a group of pirates led by renegade special forces troopers - pirates running missions for the Rahak Mutual Defense League (RMDL), the aggressive militia contesting the Prefect's control over the system. RMDL, it turned out, had just sent a courier to instruct the pirates to assassinate the Prefect.

Want to read the pre-mission intelligence briefing? I like giving my players props.

This mission was a real delight to run. Setting up a complex situation rather than a plot led to player-driven investigation, social encounters with diverse npcs, wild problem-solving, and then finally a big shebang of a firefight. The PCs arrived at Plymouth Rock, a remote smugglers' space station, where intel placed the pirates and their RMDL contact. During a fair bit of snooping around, the players discovered that the pirates were not only meeting with their contact but were also offloading sedated prisoners in shipping containers, and selling them to an agent of the disgusting Count Gaston Gadareiks - the sadistic, torturing villain from one of their earlier missions. The players came up with an awesome plan to hack into the smugglers' station central computer and re-route the shipping order so that the containers full of smuggling victims would be delivered to a ship aligned with the heroes instead of to the bad guys. Unfortunately, the attempted hacking roll worked out ... horribly. Trying again would alert too many bad guys, so another plan was needed.

Also on the smugglers' station were the monastic crews of two Interstellar Christian Orthodox and Mahayana Buddhist missionary/humanitarian ships, working through back channels since the Transference cult wasn't letting them deliver supplies to war-torn settlements in the Outer System. The PCs explained the situation to these monks (the PC with 'criminal-clergy' backgrounds took the lead here) and the monks all agreed to stage an 'impromptu' religious debate right in front of the docking bay where the shipping containers holding prisoners were scheduled for offloading. While the monks blocked the trafficking attempt, the PCs stormed the dock with the pirate ship, which they'd managed to identify through conversation with a local brothel's madam. Half the crew was on board the target vessel; the fight was pretty intense (aerial drones...smoke grenades...a light machine gun...), but the PCs won, killed the pirate leaders, and then hijacked the pirate ship and flew away on it, after leaving instructions for a friendly cargo ship to carry the trafficked prisoners back to the System Prefect.

On their hijacked pirate vessel, the PCs found a bunch of really great nano-fitting powered armor suits that only took up half the normal # of encumbrance slots - and they learned that the late pirate captain had been a renegade member of the Ecumene's psionic secret police. In his stateroom, they found vials of a serum that could stimulate latent psionic abilities. All but one of the PCs decided to risk a sip.

The PCs' successful disruption of the RMDL-pirate assassination plot gave momentum back to System Prefect Yost, the party's patron. In Session 5, Yost sent the PCs on a secret mission to capitalize on that success by arresting Duchess Joiry Rahak, the cunning head of the RMDL militia that had sought to murder the Prefect. Turned out that Rahak's pilot was the secret source in the [redacted] intelligence briefing from the previous session...and the pilot would arrange for an "accidental crash landing" of the Duchess' shuttle on an abandoned university planet. The PCs would be waiting there to arrest her.

The party arrived early and explored the ruins of what was supposed to be a totally abandoned campus stretched across a small island chain. Instead, they discovered that the place was divided between feuding tribes, descended from low-class servants and employees that the powers-that-be had never bothered to evacuate when sector politics forced the university's closure generations earlier. Before encountering the tribes, however, the players explored various ruined academic departments, where they fought bizarre critters who'd escaped from the old xenobiology department, and took down a deranged AI/server bank that had used nano-probes to zombify some poor tribesmen (not to mention a handful of antique campus security droids). Eventually, the PCs teamed up with one tribal faction, who agreed that they would support the pending arrest after Rahak's scheduled 'crash' - if the PCs first helped them deal with their enemy...The Dark Lord, Simpson.

Simpson, it turned out, was a vicious, cannibalistic queen of the campus' rival faction, an evil woman obsessed with looting and using cybernetic enhancements from old university stockpiles, a steel-jawed monstrosity who liked to eat prisoners alive or use them as forced labor to build Dark Lord Simpson-shaped sculptures all over the university buildings in her little domain. As it turned out, however, our off-world covert operatives were way more than a match for anything she had; even flanked by mutant ape-men hybrids brandishing ancient defibrillator staves as weapons, Simpson proved all too vulnerable to the PCs' modern gear. All in good time, too; when Rahak's shuttle 'crashed' right on schedule that evening, the PCs (and a new warband of spearwielding tribal allies) were ready to go get her.

Rahak, unsurprisingly, wouldn't come quietly. Right after the 'forced landing' her security escort (of about platoon strength) cleared and garrisoned the old Xenobio department building, awaiting a relief flight the next morning. The PCs hit them there, and an immense tactical firefight ensued. Each side had at least one machine gunner, and there were snipers firing on the PCs out of upstairs windows. A PC sniper gradually took out the defenders upstairs while the other characters fought heroically to force entrance to the building's central hall. Seemingly countless smoke and frag grenades got lobbed back and forth...and players even experimented with their cool new psionic powers, moving clouds of flame and smoke around the hallways through mental exertion, or psychically causing massive gusts of wind to clear hallways. A PC planted a doorcharge on an outer wall, blowing entry to an interior office; the PCs' tribal spearman allies stormed through...and half of them were killed immediately by a frag grenade. But the PCs and their friends kept fighting, and used this side-entry to force a successful outflanking maneuver that wore down the last of Duchess Rahak's guards. The Duchess went into a compliance collar and the PCs left the planet, victorious.

With RMDL effectively neutralized and only the cult of the Glorious Transference still threatening the system's stability, it was time to return covertly to the Cult's homeworld and face the ultimate threat: the slow-leaking alien quantum vault. The players had come close to it once before, and almost died horribly for their efforts. Now, there was time left for one big push to return their MacGuffin (sorry, I mean their Olmec Control Orb!) to the quantum vault, locking the vault down forever. Otherwise, the vault would soon collapse, evil psychic monsters would flood the world, and 5 billion lives minimum would be lost.

I'm not going to spell out everything that happened in this last session, but will summarize some key events. The players met the psionically-active skeleton of an ancient Olmec warden, who noted that all the PCs needed to do to shut down the vault was to place their Control Orb (from Session 1) in the correct spot on a 6x6x2 energy grid. Naturally, placing it in the wrong spot would trigger the security defenses and detonate the planet, and naturally, the eons-old warden was near-senile AND his mind was being clouded by the escapees who'd already leaked from the weakening vault, so he couldn't remember the right spot on the grid. The PCs needed, he said, to find and touch his eyestones, which would help him reorder his memories and share the proper grid coordinates to lock down his prison.

The eyestones turned out to be glowing stones embedded in the foreheads of alien statues (I can neither confirm nor deny any AD&D PHB cover influence here) in a columned hall in an underground cavern tower below the warden. Unfortunately the tower was so old that it had collapsed sideways across an underground chasm. I like to design challenging 3D battle environments, and I really went for it here; the final fight, then, took place in a room of sideways pillars, where the doorway was halfway up the wall, the statues were across the room on another wall, and moving across the room would require jumping from horizontal pillar to pillar, trying not to slip and take falling damage.

I actually used a wooden wine-bottle-rack turned on its side as our 3D battlemat, and supplemented it with a cardboard cutout to show the entryway to the pillared hall. And some crude cardboard and string, plus tyranid 40k figures, helped me plot positions of the occupants. Oh yeah, because of course there were horrific alien monsters guarding the room too.

And yeah, apparently I foreshadowed nastiness so effectively that half the party hung back at first, several rounds' movement distance behind the party scout, so that when that 1 of 4 characters clearly announced his arrival by walking up to the door with a burning phosphorous flare in his hand, he stood there alone and got to experience the full wrath of everything waiting in the room, without any help from his friends.

Everything waiting in the room included: a massive frog-headed tentacled humanoid thing was hanging by its neck in the middle of the vault - hanged by gooey black cords dangling from a gooey, black mass spread across what now served as 'the ceiling' ... but it was still moving.  The black mass, the cords, and the critter itself were black as night, with specks of light, as if the whole thing was shaped from a field of vision across the night sky. As the first player stepped into the doorway, the tentacles moved and crackled with dark energy, and The Hanged One took action. The monstrosity's tentacles swept forward.

Using Into the Odd rules: 
STR 18
DEX 10
WIL 10 (or kind of N/A)
40 HP, Armor 0

Dmg: two attacks per turn (both tentacles), 1d12 tentacle slam; very clumsy but powerful, so only hits on roll of 6+. On a hit, target also must DEX Save to stay standing or be knocked down, taking fall damage if applicable. 

So let me just say now that sometimes the dice do crazy things. I wrote this critter as "very clumsy but powerful" with a built-in fail state, where it will really hurt if it hits, but also miss a lot - which is saying something in a rules-system where you always automatically hit! But I always rolled high enough to hit with this beast on every attack all night. Killer dice.

And there were other things in the room too - five Flea Hags; giant table-sized fleas with the faces of beautiful women, except their mouths dripped black goo and they had horrible fanged teeth. Just flea-versions of the evil cockroaches from the PCs' previous trip to this planet. Their stats:

5 Shadow Flea-Hags 
Grotesque flea/lizard-like things with pallid human female faces, sharp-fanged and dripping. Long leaping legs that can climb agilely. 
STR 15
DEX 15
WIL 18
10 hp, Armor 1

Damage: d8 psychic screech, direct WIL damage ; d6 bite (upon direct damage, to STR, causes infection of WIL - add 1 Fatigue to character inventory per instance of direct damage). 
Critical Damage: if a character falls incapacitated, the Shadow Fleas will turn to focus on the rest of the party. If the party leaves behind any members, the Shadow Fleas will kill and devour 1 fallen PC per round. 

Tactical abilities: can climb on any surface in the encounter area. Able to relocate by direct jump to any spot in current or adjacent ‘cell’ chambers (including diagonally adjacent). No fall damage if they are knocked down. Will play very smart, hiding behind cover, crawling upside down or on walls. Then will leap-rush vulnerable targets. 

A Flea-Hag may also make a ‘stunt’ jump-attack; in addition to rolling damage, a character jumped on by a flea-hag must make a DEX Save or be knocked down and fall, losing perch and taking fall damage as applicable (1d6 per cell level above the floor). 

So yeah, the first player in never stood a chance. He took two tentacles at once then got jumped by two Flea-Hags; he was incapacitated (not killed) before he ever got off a shot. By the time the other PCs finally arrived, together, he'd been further chewed on and then dropped from the doorway onto the floor below. was a crazy fight. My players put up one heck of a battle and I'm pleased and proud with the shenanigans they attempted trying to pull victory from the jaws of death. There were dramatic jumps from column to column where falling would have caused 2d6 fall damage. There was machine gun fire at point-blank range (and even using a machine gun as an improvised club after it needed reloading). The gunner even shot through the black cords 'hanging' the tentacled beast, which plummeted to the 'floor' and landed on one of the flea-hags, damaging it (at this point I leaned forward with scissors into our 'battlemap' and cut the yarn holding up the toilet-paper-tube that was the Hanged One. It fell with a satisfying descent onto a plastic 40k Tyranid figure ;-) ) . One character jumped off a column, fell onto the top of a flea-hag, and attacked it with a defibrillator stick as he landed. Unfortunately, that player then succumbed to attacks from two flea-hags. In the end, only the machine-gunner was left, standing in the doorway to the pillared hall, with 0 HP and hardly any STR left...he decided to jump down one level to the 'floor' in order to revive an incapacitated companion with a trauma kit. It was a risky move, since the 1d6 fall damage might knock him out, but he was wearing swank power armor with damage reduction of 3. (For those not familiar with ItO, he had a 50% chance of not taking any damage at all from the fall, but if he rolled 4+, he would almost certainly get knocked out).

It was a risky but bold toss of the dice to bring back a friend and get help taking out the last two flea-hags. With a 1d6 roll of 1-3, he'd be able to spend an action jabbing a buddy with a trauma kit needle, restoring them to consciousness, full HP, and 1d6 restored STR.

The fall damage roll was: a 4.

He hit the ground, took the damage, couldn't pass a STR test, and was incapacitated. The last echoes of combat faded; all PCs were down, and two flea-hags were still standing. The flea-hags turned to feast. All PCs died, and because they died, the quantum vault failed and opened the next day. Thousands and thousands of monstrosities like the flea-hags swarmed the planet, killing its 5 billion inhabitants, then boarded shuttles and headed for the system's other worlds. By the time the civil war ended across the Ecumene and the military returned, they found the Scythian System a place of death and nightmare creatures, a place fit only for quarantine after the last survivors were desperately evacuated. But the evacuees spoke, in despairing whispers of what might-have-been, of a small band of heroes who had tried, at least, to hold back the apocalypse. That they had tried was still known, but even their names were lost forever.

Fade to black.


MY WORD, I had mixed feelings about that ending! I'm confident in how I played it out, and quite grateful and pleased by my players' gracious, mature reactions to what happened, but DANG IT - I really was a fan of my players and believed in their cause. I WANTED to see a different end to their story. (stomps feet, steps on 1d4...)

I know, however, that if I'd just fudged the numbers to get the ending we all wanted, I'd regret it now.

WHY the TPK happened is a mix of several factors, not the least being the raw variability of dice results. The PCs had the dice turn against them at a few critical junctures in the final battle, whereas I seemed to have magic fingers through the whole encounter; almost every time I rolled a d8 for damage, for example, it seemed to come up 6-8, and the Hanged One's clumsy tentacle attack (d12!) never missed, not once. Then there are tactical factors, like the party scout's initial solitary incapacitation, and the fact the players kept shooting and didn't go full-on to rescue and revive fallen comrades until it was almost too late for it to work. After mulling it over and talking with the players, I feel good about the way I designed the encounter; there was a meaningful chance of player success, even after the first casualty.

I think this was my first TPK as a GM, at least certainly since my return to RPGs in recent years. It's a sobering experience, made worse by the fact that it wasn't just "ok, you died, roll up new characters and come back to the dungeon." No, we quite explicitly set up this campaign as a fast, short-term, time-limited affair, with a meaningful chance of campaign failure. Ever since Session 1, I'd been reminding my players that they had until Sept. 15 2019 (in real time) to 'save the day' - or the bad guys would win the campaign. Failure was always on the table; 5 billion lives were always at stake in the campaign's narrative background. The whole thing was structured as a fun open-table experiment. It was, in fact, great fun (I may add a follow-up post with my lessons learned about designing and running for a time-limited open table environment).

In closing, let me just say this: I'm actually pretty bummed about our narrative outcome. But I feel as if I've also proven something to myself - I'm willing to kill a whole party, in a campaign finale, with epic stakes on the table, if the dice say that's what happens. And hey, I know that at the end of the day we're all just playing dice games about imaginary critters, heroes, and explosions. But in the private place where we recognize the emotional impact of these stories we tell, I'm shaking my head over what happened...but looking forward to what might happen in the future. Looking forward to times when the dice fall differently, when the PCs aim high and the dice roll that way, too...when, faced with overwhelming odds and high stakes, the last-minute gambits pay off, and the heroes save the day...

...and I can grin at them, and celebrate, and feel confident that we've all earned it.

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