Last weekend I was at Revelation, the convention for Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) and PBTA-adjacent games in Sheffield. I ran Fistful of Darkness (FoD), an in-playtest Blades in the Dark hack, over 2 slots on the Saturday, and faced some challenges as the game has a fairly baked-in metaplot. I’m going to share what I did to pace the session and ensure we had a satisfying conclusion and gradient of doom.
As I talked about here, in PBTA you can make things easier for yourself by either pre-booking or limiting (depending on if you know your players) the playbooks available. Luckily I knew I had a Shot and a Wrench & Saw playing, so I knew that gunfights and steampunk mad science were going to feature heavily. I spent about forty minutes on prep at the table, getting some NPCs from each player, laying them out on index cards on the table, and getting some features of the town. As I always do with these games, during the seven hour run I had a couple of times where I took a break and asked the players to leave me alone while I did some mid-game prep – mainly involving trying to fold existing stuff into the plot, but more on that later.
Get Your Beats In
FoD has an in-built metaplot – the discovery of Hellstone is releasing monsters, and eventually the Four Horsemen, across the land, leading to an inevitable apocalypse. In play it has a Doom mechanic that triggers this, but I quickly realised that wasn’t going to work for a one-shot session. I decided to keep Doom as a track, but leave it similar to Heat in Blades in the Dark – if it gets too high, monsters will start actually hunting the PCs – and decide myself when the Horsemen made an appearance.
I then thought about the time I had. I wanted to start with an introductory mission that dusted off the system and introduced some core concepts to the players, and made this a ‘mundane’ mission – a completely regular wild west train robbery, with no magical content save for the discovery of Hellstone in the safe and discovery of plans for a Hellstone claim. At the end of the first (3-hour) session I wanted the First Horseman to appear, and then the other three were to appear in the second act – one at first fairly early, and then two at once to herald the apocalypse proper about an hour from the end, to propel the PCs to the final action to try and prevent it.
Chekhov’s Apocalypse Horsemen
In play I tried to steer everything to make the appearance of the Horsemen tied to their own actions – any chaos they created, or NPCs they killed, inevitable came back to bite them as the situation got worse. Neatly, they managed to frame one NPC for murder almost by accident, so when he was hanged in the centre of town he came back as the Hanged Rider. As the players interacted with the town and its environs, the chorus of NPCs responded in kind, becoming more angry and bestial, so hopefully the final breakdown of the barriers between worlds felt natural.
There were also mundane re-incorporations; as part of the initial setup two PCs determined they were in town to compete in a poker tournament, so when we fleshed that out as a riverboat tournament it became a centrepiece scene.
Be Prepared! (to ignore your prep)
As well as an overall sketch, I had six jobs ready for the PCs that, while not directly related to the metaplot, could be twisted and folded into it. As it was maybe two made an appearance, and heavily modified at that, but several of them were options for the PCs to explore – they just chose not to, as there were always more pressing matters to attend to. I’d like to think that, like the side missions in an open world videogame, they added depth to the world, and I felt better as a GM knowing I had some prep I could fall back on. These were literally randomly rolled on the FoD tables.
One of the true pleasures of these sorts of games is the unexpected scenes that come up, often from failed rolls. There were at least three of those scenes that I never could have expected in this session, and that made it all worthwhile. I do find running PBTA/FiTD games more exhausting than more traditional games – it’s the feeling of having to stay on top of everything and focus your moves all the time – but it’s worth it.
In my other games at Revelation, I played the fantastic PvP space fantasy epic Spacewurm vs. Moonicorn, and an excellent British millenial superhero romp of Masks. All excellent fun – and it’s happening next year as well. Have you used any techniques to embed metaplot or story advancement in otherwise improvised games? Comment below, or find me on twitter.