Last Days of Disco playtest: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Elvezio and Julian

Friendly warning (mature content): the few of you who read my blog will probably not be troubled by such things, but the session report below describes events that play out in the overheated world of the 1970s disco scene. So, if not-particularly-graphic depictions of gay sex, irresponsible drug use, etc., are not for you, please move on to one of my many other posts. 

WebShortly after my group’s lively first exposure to Nathan Paoletta’s excellent fiction game, Death of the Gilded Age, it occurred to me that its simple engine could be repurposed to other eras with different flavors. (It’s a neat little game. If you’re at all interested head over to ndpdesign.com and check it out.)

That idea went quickly into the “maybe someday” pile of projects, the one that rarely sees the light of day. Recently, though, Gilded Age has been back on my radar. My wife, a professor, has decided to put together a narrative/story games course for next winter. We both agree that the simple mechanics of Gilded Age make it very teachable, and so it was one of the first things she put on the syllabus.

Dusting it off also inspired me to contact Nathan about doing a reskin of Gilded Age called Last Days of Disco. Nathan is very generously allowing us to play with his toys.

A couple of nights ago I sat down with my ideas and whipped up a no-art “alpha” document heavily influenced by the mythology and history of the now infamous Studio 54. And last night my wife, my buddy Joe, and I put Last Days through its paces with a disco mix thumping away cheerfully in the background.

Last Days of Disco, like Gilded Age, will use a series of playmats that show all the rules and help the players to track the progress of the story. The first step is to randomize (within a fairly narrow set of constraints) the basic details of the party and the broad outlines of the host’s personality

Here’s what we ended up with after this step…
When: Halloween (after all Studio 54 had notorious Halloween bashes.)
Where: Torchsong Island (Fire Island with the serial numbers filed off.)
Who: A Wolf of Wall Street, cunning and callous
Reputation of the Host: Hopelessly Romantic

After knocking the ideas around for awhile we named our protagonist Julian Faulkner. We decided he was a brutal Wall Street wheeler dealer, who got his start bilking old ladies out of their savings. Eventually Julian, a poor hustler from the streets, made it to a kind of legitimacy by taking control of a Wall Street investment house. But he had a secret… he was gay in a time when that was a tough sell in the macho world of The Street. And he really, really liked to party.

His wife, Julia Sharpe, was happy to play along with the fiction that her husband was what he appeared to be, a conservative member of New York’s elite. He had his swinging lifestyle, and she had her long string of affairs with younger men. She, after all, was from money, and she understood that power couples (like Julia and Julian) ended up striking side deals so that they could have their cake and eat it to.

As befits a Halloween party among New York’s elite, we decided it would be a fancy bal masqué, filled with classical allusions. That way people could get their freak on while maintaining some hope (or at least pretense) of anonymity. Julia knew to stay well away from such an event, especially if Julian was going to be there. For his part, Julian was attending the party as Pluto, lord of the underworld. His costume consisted of a silver full face mask, made of actual silver, below a laurel wreath wrapped around his temples, his loose flowing robes leaving little to the imagination.

LDoD_clingstone_imageWe also worked out the the geography of the mansion and its surroundings; our set, if you will. The mansion, an old and sprawling wooden lodge from the ‘30s, was straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The large deck featured a jacuzzi, a nod to the times, and a view of the rocky beach below. 

We were ready to begin…

We turned over our first Wrench card to discover that it was the King of Hearts. (Wrench cards represent problems/challenges the Host has to deal with. They also divide the story into a three act structure, and propel the action into each act.) Riffing on the idea that Hearts represent the theme of “sex” in Last Days, we decided that one of Julian’s old lovers, perhaps the love of his life, had appeared at the party. We knocked around ideas for a few minutes, played with a name generator on Joe’s phone, and came up with the stunningly handsome Elvezio Gaurini, “the one that got away.”

Elvezio, we decided, was the kind of person that just exuded sexuality every waking moment. Men and women were constantly throwing themselves at him… and for the brief time that they were together, they were the complete focus of his passion. It’s not that Elvezio was a bad guy, or even a slut, he just embodied the idea of living in the moment.

His arrival at the party electrifies the crowd and throws them into a frenzy. A provocative presence even at the most sedate of occasions, Elvezio is dressed to entice. He calls himself the Satyr of Capri and looks the part: bare chest, furry gold chaps, and a half-mask with horns. My wife came up with the best detail, though, custom-cobbled high-heeled shoes that made Elvezio look like he had little hooves.

Unable to contain themselves, the people in the crowd start pawing at him and ripping off his costume. Mab, the party’s organizer, manages to whisk him off to a private room. But, as we discover, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire for Elvezio.

When the lights come on he realizes he’s trapped in an expensive mock-up of a jail cell with Julian. Julian comes on to him still in costume as Pluto and plies him with pomegranate seeds. Elvezio, knowing full well it’s Julian, gets a kick out of the trouble his “host” has gone to and they have sex. Afterwards, Julian refuses to drop the Pluto bit claiming that Elvezio now “belongs” to him. Elvezio starts to get irritated, but then Julian plays his ace. He offers Elvezio, who is also an investment banker, a seat on the board at his company… but only if he’ll agree to an exclusive relationship with Julian.

Elvezio ponders his indecent proposal, and then agrees. Later they entertain the party goers with a mock-wedding between Pluto and the Satyr of Capri complete with a bit of ribbon tied between their hands to seal the deal.

With the stakes now appropriately raised, it was time for another Wrench. This time a Spade was revealed. One of the options under that suit is “contracts (broken or honored).” We decided that Elvezio wouldn’t be able to last an hour keeping up his end of the bargain.

At this point Brad Knight, Julian’s assistant, has seen enough. Unfortunately Julian doesn’t realized that Brad is Julia’s latest conquest and that he’s reporting back to her.

Brad creeps away and calls Julia, letting her know that things are starting to get out of hand and that Elvezio is involved. Julia tells him “to make sure Elvezio hooks up with someone else as soon as possible.”

LDoD_grace-jones

My Dream Casting for Tawny – ’80s era Grace Jones

When Julian comes to Brad for some uppers, he slips him a few Quaaludes instead. With Julian wandering the halls in a daze, Brad contrives to have Elvezio meet Tawny, a beautiful black transwoman dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. The two have some very public sex on Pluto’s Throne, which sits at the edge of the dance floor, as the crowd eggs them on and showers them with glitter. Mab finds Julian almost passed out in one of the bathrooms. She takes pity on him and dabs his face and forehead with a cool washcloth. She tells him that he should stay away from Elvezio, that he’s only going to get his heart broken. From what she’s saying he can tell that something’s happened. He stumbles back toward the party with his mask off, and some of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd start asking him for investment tips. Realizing he’s exposed, he puts his mask back on.

As he makes it back to the dance floor someone yells, “Your new bride’s been cheating on you!” Humiliated, Julian stalks through the throbbing crowd. He follows the trail of glitter down to the rocks on the beach where he sees Elvezio and Tawny strolling in the moonlight.

At this point we could sense that this was the big final confrontation of our story, so we turned over our final Wrench card… revealing a Club. One of the narrative choices for that suit is “arrests” so we decided our story was going to have a dark final act.

Julian starts arguing with Elvezio. Tawny isn’t up for the drama so she tells the boys to work it out as she walks away. Elvezio tries to explain to Julian that it just isn’t in his nature to be tied down. With nothing left to say Elvezio turns to leave, but Julian is enraged. He picks up a beach rock and smashes Elvezio in the head. Elvezio collapses on to the rocks with Julian standing over him.

It only takes a few seconds for Julian’s self-preservation instinct to kick in. He hurls the rock into the ocean and runs back to the party, yelling that Elvezio has fallen and hit his head. This kills the vibe pretty quickly. An air ambulance comes for Elvezio, but he’s already slipped into a coma. By the time the cops from the Torchsong PD get there, the party has emptied out. Elvezio passes away a couple of days later, and the Torchsong cops end up begging the NYPD to take over, which they do. The NYPD do their best to untangle things now that the case is a homicide…

It was time to look at the final Fate of our host. As a result of the cards played we were left with this result for our protagonist: “Surprising everyone, they turn on the party people. How do the become a voice for the Moral Majority?”

So Julian gets away with it, but there’s a price to pay.

Julia uses the incident to force Julian to sign over the family assets to her. She also forces him to go out in public and repudiate his former life. He pretends to listen at his “deprogramming” sessions. In a high profile visit to the Phil Donahue Show he talks about the immoral and deplorable life he used to lead. The housewives of America soak up every salacious detail.

Eventually, the “reformed” Julian finds himself at Reagan rallies, where he makes out with other closeted Republicans when he can.

***

In the end I was tremendously pleased with how this re-theming played. I would never in a million years have ended up in the fictive territory suggested by Last Days, but the prompts led us down a really interesting, and frankly new, path. That fact by itself suggests that my take on the rules has merit. Also, the ending seemed beautifully fitting for a game called Last Days of Disco.

I’ve sent the text document off to Nathan, and I’ll send him a link to this play report as well. I’m very intrigued to hear what he has to say. Also, my friend Joe is starting to research various sources of disco imagery for the design of the Last Days playmats.

I can’t wait to see where this leads.

Running Lady Blackbird at DunDraCon 40

Lady_Blackbird_DDC40My recent trip to DunDraCon was my second, but my first as a volunteer. I’d tried to schedule my session of Lady Blackbird for nighttime — mainly because that’s when I’m usually at my best as a GM. Unfortunately it ended up being slotted for 2 pm Sunday. This is just about the exact point at a convention when I feel like curling up in a ball on one of those comfy hotel lobby chairs. I remember sitting with my buddy Joe at about noon and telling him that getting pumped up to run a game was about the last thing I felt like doing. He reminded me that the players would provide a nice dose of energy, and I agreed, hoping that he’d be right.

My room for running Lady Blackbird was tucked away in an area behind the seating for the hotel restaurant. Not only that, but it was a room off of another room. There wasn’t another game scheduled for our 4 hour block, and I knew our set-up would be a perfect for a story-heavy game  — as long as the players could find it.

Michael, who was hoping to crash the game, was on hand a good hour before it started. We chatted for a while as I did my minimal set-up. Eventually a number of people trickled in… enough that I had to start a list to fill in for possible no-shows. We ended up having exactly five players, though only two were actually registered. (It always pays to try to crash a game at DunDraCon.)

As you may already know, John Harper’s lovely (and free) RPG, Lady Blackbird, comes out of the box with 5 pre-made characters, each with a clear story niche. (For more about Lady Blackbird generally check my post here.)

The roles and players were as follows:
Lady Blackbird (played by Michael) – “An Imperial noble, in disguise, escaping an arranged marriage so she can be with her lover”
Naomi Bishop (played by Adrian) – “Former pit-fighter and bodyguard to Lady Blackbird”
Cyrus Vance (played by Duane) – “An ex-Imperial soldier turned smuggler and soldier-of-fortune, Captain of The Owl”
Kale Arkam (played by Cindy) – “A burglar and petty sorcerer, first mate and mechanic of The Owl”
Snargle (played by Davi, if I’m spelling it right) – “A goblin sky-sailor and pilot of The Owl”

(This is probably already apparent to you, but The Owl is the sky-ship the characters travel around in.)

I passed out the character sheets, let each player have a few minutes to absorb the vibe of the game (and their character), and talked about the rules. One of the game’s GM principles is to “Listen & Ask Questions; Don’t Plan.” Last time I ran Lady Blackbird, I waited until the game was under way to ask questions. This time I changed things up by starting in right away. (I can’t recommend this approach enough. It helped me zero in on what the players wanted right away, and got us off to a flying start.)

Since Lady Blackbird is running away from her fiancé, it was natural to ask about him. Michael gave me a great name, Lord Benson Albrecht, and when prompted, some really unlikable qualities. We discovered that Lord Albrecht was condescending, considered himself a big game hunter, and was disgustingly rich.

In the setup for the game, Lady Blackbird isn’t just running away from her fiancé, though, she also running towards bad-boy pirate king Uriah Flint. When I asked Lady Blackbird if she’d stolen anything from her family home to offer up as a token dowry to Flint, she told me about the sword Heartpiercer. (I certainly liked the sound of that!) Heartpiercer was a family heirloom that was used in the duel where her grandfather won her grandmother’s heart.

We also found out during setup that Snargle had actually been kidnapped to become a part of Albrecht’s menagerie… and that Cyrus Vance had rescued him from that fate.

I’d been considering bringing Lord Albrecht in relatively late in the story, but now that I had two characters who already loathed him (along with the fact that I could play an annoyingly foppish NPC in my sleep) I decided to bring him in as quickly as possible.

The scenario for Lady Blackbird starts in medias res with the Owl having already been captured and brought on board the huge Imperial cruiser, Hand of Sorrow. It’s only a matter of time before the identity of Cyrus Vance is discovered, so the game begins with a healthily ticking clock. (In fact, we decided to up the stakes even more by having Vance be the former commander of the Hand of Sorrow.)

As the crew of the Owl discusses how to get out of the cell they find themselves in, Bishop knocks the door off its hinges with a flying kick. The guards are easily subdued. Soon the motley bunch are headed through the bowls of the ship. They hide when they hear a patrol coming, most of them under the deck plating, and Bishop up above the corridor in a tangle of conduit and pipe.

Lady Blackbird hears a familiar lisping voice say, “I certainly hope you’ve found my fiancé, Captain; there’ll be quite a reward for you if you have.” She instantly realizes that fate has brought Lord Albrecht right to her. The group overpower the patrol and grab a stunned Albrecht. They take him hostage and use him as leverage to get off the ship.

Once the Captain of the Hand of Sorrow recovers from a near-strangling at the hands of Bishop, he gives the order to fire on the Owl. Taking evasive action, Snargle dives down into the Lower Depths. He finds an encrudded cave on a floating island of garbage to park the ship in when the Hand of Sorrow switches to using “altitude charges.”

The Sorrow moves out of range, but not before rousing a nearby sky squid. Thanks to a blown piloting roll, the sky squid grabs the Owl, and instead of attempting to tear it apart, it decides to try to mate with it. After half an hour of passionate love-making, the Owl and her crew are a little worse for wear.

Some discussion with Kale Arkham reveals that his sometime lady-friend, Fiona Quinn, runs a combination fencing operation/brothel on Nightport. He thinks that if anyone would know how to get to Uriah Flint’s lair in the Remnants, it would be her.

During this voyage, Albrecht, who doesn’t seem to realize he’s not in charge anymore, suffers a number of degradations. Bishop pops him in the face for mouthing off to Lady Blackbird. He can’t really fathom how much Lady Blackbird loathes him until she tells him that she wants to make him watch as she consummates her marriage to Uriah Flint. (This started as just a nasty thing to say, but as you shall see, it ended up providing great fodder for the game.)

By this point in the session things were popping along wonderfully. People were tossing ideas in and loose threads were being followed with gusto. Here’s an emblematic example. We hit a point in the game where one of the characters wanted a drink, and I said, okay, but we need some sort of space liquor, something for this setting. Davi said, well there are these Sky Squids.. and I followed up by saying, so, like, a liquor made from fermented squid fat… and Duane countered, no squid ink. We all laughed. Oh yeah, I said, that would leave your tongue so black… and then somebody else added, Black Tongue, that’s what it’s called! (And if I play Blackbird again, Black Tongue will surely be in the liquor cabinet.)

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Lady Blackbird: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wild Blue

wild_blueI’ll admit it, I was a little late to the story game party.

I stumbled across Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World around the same time a few years ago and my mind was blown. At that point I’d played Hero System on and off for about 25 years, not even realizing that it had become a game many people consider at best “crunchy” and at worst impossibly baroque. Me and my groups had always emphasized story-telling when we played Hero. Sure there were times when we got out the minis and battlemaps, but we tried to make those fights a real part of the story.

When I got into conventions in a big way I discovered that this certainly wasn’t the case for everyone. Most (though not all) of the Hero games I ended up in were just long bashes, not really what I was looking for from my favorite “legacy” RPG. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t give up playing Hero, but I began to sense that I was missing out on a newer, more story-intensive form of gaming.

So a couple of years ago I set out to widen my RPG repertoire. If nothing else I thought it could enhance my ability to GM more traditional games. I’ve played and run a number of Apocalypse World Engine titles, as well as other “meta-story” games like Microscope and The Quiet Year over the last couple of years.

Somewhere along the way I discovered John Harper’s excellent little game. It’s a lovingly put together free RPG that includes a setting, rules, pre-generated characters, and even an opening adventure, all tucked into 16 crisply designed and illustrated pages.

I play-tested Blackbird once with my Indie Game Night group and was intrigued enough to run it at DunDraCon 40. (The game-play I discuss here for the most part refers to my DunDraCon run.)

Lady Blackbird is very much a “swords and ether ships” sort of setting. It’s Firefly shaded even more towards science-fantasy. One of my players at DunDraCon showed me a web comic called Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether as a reference point; I took a look at a couple of panels and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s it.”

The action of Lady Blackbird takes place in the Wild Blue…

“The worlds of the Wild Blue float in a sky of breathable gases circling a small, cold star. Scholars believe that the star is made from pure Essence—the strange energy that sorcerers channel for their magic. This ‘solar system’ is much smaller than you might think—it takes about six weeks to cross from one side to the other on a standard sky ship.”

There’s also an area of the Wild Blue called the Lower Depths with a corrosive miasma that’s unbreathable and dangerous for ship hulls.

The first time I played, I got really hung up on the Lower Depths. I didn’t need it to make scientific sense, but I couldn’t seem to find a rationale for it being there beyond “it’s cool!” It bothered me and distracted me, and even though I enjoyed my first run, I had that itchy feeling that I wasn’t quite getting it.. and by extension (somehow) the rest of the game. I think my hangup was just a symptom of not being able to rise to the proper level of romantic pulpiness to get into the true spirit of the thing.

Happily, things feel snugly into place during my DunDraCon run. When the player’s ship, The Owl, descended into the Lower Depths to flee pursuit, it suddenly occurred to me that all the pollution of the worlds that float in the Wild Blue must sink down into the Depths No wonder it’s so toxic!

This revelation unlocked a whole flurry of thoughts. Is this where wrecked sky ships end up? Sure. Do they eventually corrode into floating islands of garbage? Definitely. Are those islands populated by semi-sentient Things? Absolutely! Suddenly I had the option of invoking a sub-plot involving hideous (but enlightened?) creatures from the Lower Depths, even though there’s all of three sentences about the Lower Depths in the actual rules.

And this, I think, is exactly what designer John Harper intended. He gives you a little box of parts, a few rules, and he wants you to go off and build something exciting for yourself and for your players. It’s a Cornell Box for the mind.

I knew all of that when I played Lady Blackbird with my game night gang back in the Fall, but this time all the techniques I’ve been learning about for the last couple of years… asking players questions about their characters, listening to the answers and building (and complicating) them… all of that finally came together for me. It just worked.

Last Sunday I sailed off into the Wild Blue, and it was fun…

Up Next… Playing Blackbird at DunDraCon 40.