Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - A Word That Starts With C

As I was saying last week, during that memorable convention weekend, I got my first taste of The Morrow Project. I played the game twice, and both times, the game turned into a word that starts with 'c' and ends with 'lusterfuck.' But not in a bad way, necessarily.

The Morrow Project was a game published in 1980 by TimeLine Inc. The basic storyline: the project was formed by a man named Morrow at the head of a coalition of rich industrialists. Morrow had certain knowledge (and perhaps even physical proof) of an upcoming nuclear holocaust, and formed the project to help the world recover. Teams of experts in science and medicine, specially trained, were cryogenically frozen and stored in underground bunkers, set to revive after the war. But something went wrong, and the project members slept longer than planned. When they woke up, they had no communication with Prime Base and no idea of the condition of the world outside their bunker.

And the world outside is a mess. Unlike most RPG systems that start out with character generation, The Morrow Project starts out with rules for determining where the bombs fall, including a list of targets and diagrams of MIRV spreads and diameters. And the rules contain extensive descriptions of modern-day weapons, bands of roving bandits and mutated creatures.

If that sounds like a recipe for fun and adventure, you might be right. But it's also a recipe for paranoia and confusion. As my first experience with the game proved.

For my character, I decided to be a chaplain/medic, reasoning that if we were supposed to help a traumatized population recover, it might be good to offer some sort of spiritual comfort as well as physical. We woke up in a bunker, a bunch of us (I don't remember how many exactly). Because we had been recruited and frozen at different times and places, we didn't know each other. We explored the bunker and attempted to contact Prime Base through the computer. But the computer was damaged, so we were out of luck.

We decided to pack up and move out, try to establish radio contact outside or something. We had a large four-wheel drive vehicle waiting for us. We opened the bunker doors and prepared to get in the vehicle, when disaster struck.

One of the players, it turns out, decided to be a douchebag. He jumped into the vehicle and took it for a joyride before all of us had even gotten in. He went roaring out the bunker door and into the night. Several of us ran out after him, thinking he might just run the thing around the block or something, then come back after us. Meanwhile, a couple of the other guys who stayed in the bunker got into an argument over the secondary vehicle and some other equipment.

Long story short, the douchebag wrecked the vehicle in the woods just outside the bunker, killing himself and his one (or two) passengers (one of whom had been clinging to the door of the vehicle, deciding whether to jump out--when the vehicle rolled, the door was torn off, taking his arm with it). As we were running forward to help the victims, the spilled fuel caught on fire, which ignited the ammo stored in the vehicle, causing a huge explosion. I managed to avoid the blast, but the others were hit by shrapnel and either died instantly or were rapidly bleeding to death. Meanwhile, the morons still in the bunker got in a firefight over something stupid and killed each other.

My chaplain/medic was the only one left whole, trying to save the life of a guy bleeding out through a wound in the jugular (and the detailed rules for wounds and shock and healing were pretty detailed and unforgiving--no D&D-style abstractions here). Unable to stop the bleeding, I put a bullet through his head, then snapped and began preaching to the advancing flames of the forest fire started by our exploding vehicle.

It was a horrible gaming experience, yet brilliantly memorable. So for some reason, I ended up buying a copy of the rules myself. And a couple of years later, back at USC, I decided to run some of my friends in a game.

My scenario opened much the same way that the convention game had. The characters woke up in a bunker with a bunch of strangers and a broken computer. They managed not to kill each other leaving the bunker, and followed a road to a small town by a lake. There they found a small population of people supporting themselves by agriculture and fishing the lake.

But there was something strange about this town. The Fishers were scared to stay out after dark, and there was a large abandoned church building that they were afraid to approach. Yep, you guessed it--vampires, or should I say, wampyrs (keep in mind, this was back in the days before the vampire revival that started in the late 80's, so this storyline that sounds so stale post-"30 Days of Night" actually had a touch of freshness in it at the time). These were actually people with a strange post-holocaust disease a'la "The Omega Man."

Two children accidentally violated a taboo and turned up missing, so the player characters decided to rescue them, which ended up in a big pitched battle in the middle of town after dark. It was pretty wild--heavy weapons blowing up buildings and starting fires, a horde of bloodthirsty bestial enemies, the rescued kids turning out to be infected and attacking their rescuers, players characters shooting the kids, then shooting their comrades who had been bitten (not even waiting to see if they turned up infected first). It wasn't quite a TPK (Total Player Kill), but I think at least two-thirds of the party died, and the rest ran for their lives before the surviving Fishers could organize against them for destroying the town.

It was a beautiful disaster. I had planned to push their paranoia buttons, and they had reacted just the way I intended. And though the adventure had been a disaster for the characters, it had been an intense and interesting disaster, and I had not set up their expectations for any kind of long on-going campaign, so no one was disappointed when we never played again.

And I learned another valuable role-playing lesson.

Role-playing Rule #6: Even 'losing' adventures can be fun* and rewarding, if they produce an intense experience and give the players a story to tell afterward.

But let's jump back a couple of years. Last week, I mentioned that there were two stages to my exposure to a wider world through role-playing games.

Because the games weren't just a hobby I had adopted to kill time on Saturdays. They quite literally changed my life. I'll talk more about that next week.

*ETA: I realize that my use of the word 'fun' to describe an adventure that included the killing of children (however savage and dangerous they might be) may give the wrong impression. The adventure wasn't 'fun' in the traditional sense as it was going on; it was intense, and the players were panicking and freaking out. But afterwards, they were able to laugh about just how intense a session of rolling dice on a tabletop had managed to get.

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