We played Dresden last night. I GM’d and I was very happy with the results. Lately I’ve been underwhelmed by my own efforts, but last night worked out very well. Thanks to Rob, Rob and Dano!
I had decided on a simple adventure with no Big Bad. I was playing with either one night or two for the scenario and decided eventually on just a single one. My original inspiration was to set a Hollywood movie in the winter bush of Alberta. Alberta gets used for movies from time to time – usually for the grandeur of the mountains or the prairies. But the dominant terrain of the province for a northern boy like me is the bush.
The second idea was ice fishing. A few people at work have mentioned some excellent ice fishing trips they’ve had in February. That stuck in my brain for a while percolating until I found it working. As usual I twisted it – I mad the fish under the ice the hunter and the people on top the hunted.
The framework was simple. Four scenes. The first to establish the concept and introduce the key NPCs. The second was to complicate and introduce conflict. Because it was short I didn’t build in any twists (i.e. this wasn’t the way you thought at all), but just a couple red herrings and secondary antagonists. The third and fourth scenes were the big action set pieces. It didn’t end up playing out that way at all, but that is the fun of Dresden.
Should I describe the four scenes as they happened or the three things that made the session really stand out to me?
Scene 1 – Intro. The NPCs I designed were the movie director Joan Hoamin, Jim ‘Weather Witch’ Jones – a hedge witch and special effects person, and Candy Druthers – a crew member (grip). I ended up improvising two more during play – Tommy a local roughneck leading a ‘mob’ of concerned citizens and Tommy (a gag to have both in the same scene – it was a little runnign joke on the evening) to movie camp caretaker and gate guard. The plot was simply that the party was to investigate some mysterious vandalism on set. The set was a frozen lake (Wabumen) near a small town (Entwhistle). The scene filming was a shinny game out on the lake. The idea was simply to introduce everything and set up all three NPCs as suspects (Candy was the ‘villain’ kinda). Then I was going to have the vandalism mystery escalate into a missing persons case too.
I ended up moving a conflict I had in scene two (scuffle with locals) to scene 1. I had only wanted to bring news of the missing boy, but the scene had dragged a bit and needed some conflict so I brought this forward. The party resolved it socially and mostly through roleplay rather than rollplay.
The neatest thing that happened was Rob’s character (Bathran) can talk to ghosts. This allowed me to establish that the problems went back many years in a repeating fashion (another idea advanced from scene 2 where I was going to have them investigate). But the neatest thing was I got to create a very creepy and sad story for the ghost). He was wandering the lake shore trying to find his boy (Whom I called Rob) who had drowned in 1972. It was just the boy and his father in the boat and the boy simply slipped over the edge reaching for something in the water. After the boy drowned, the father would never give up the search. Each year he returned to the camp site and the lake to look some more. Eventually the father too drowned while out on the lake. I also got to increase the dread of the lake as the ghost now refused to go near the water and just wandered the campsite.
It was a particularly inspired piece of improvisation I thought and the players reacted strongly to it. Creepy, sad and scary.
Scene 2 (Investigation) – The two main ideas I had for scene 2 got moved up a scene. So I didn’t have anything left in this scene. I allowed them to deepen their knowledge a bit, but there wasn’t really any new information. So I moved up a secondary conflict from scene 3 – confrontation with the law. The scene went fairly quick and well.
Scene 3 (Set Piece 1) – Return to the empty lake set at night to confirm the mysteries and try and find their root cause. I wanted it to play out a little like Jaws. An implacable foe that was out of sight for most of the conflict. I was a bit worried that my giant pike (24′) might come off as silly, but it worked great. First the players helped me set the mood. They bought into the setting completely – a deserted set on a frozen lake in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. Conveniently they killed the lights themselves (I didn’t need to have the monster do it) and then they split up. I was also able to get them to accept compels that isolated the three players further.
The fish attacked from under the ice. At first I wanted the threat not to be the fish itself, but falling into the water through the cracked ice. With the snow and the darkness I was also able to work on having them also move around blindly. Eventually I’d reveal the fish and have it attack with a combination of crushing blows and the chance to swallow a character whole.
I attacked Rob’s character (Jeff) collapsing a tent around him and nearly pulling him under the ice. Jeff has powerful magic – earth, magnetism, illusion and travel, but none of it seemed useful alone on a lake under attack. Bathran and Dano’s character (Xin) rushed to his aid. Xin taking a snowmobile from the edge of the lake (giving me a good hex opportunity I didn’t use).
Jeff was under constant siege while Bathran and Xin played a little Keystone Cops routine on their way to rescue. The two contrasts played off one another well. Jeff finally escaped. Xin setup a counter attack while the fish prepared its big attack against Bathran.
Did the scene ever work well! The climax had the fish launch from the ice in a leap arcing across and aiming to swallow Bathran whole. Xin launched the sled at the beast in a move any daredevil would be proud of. The attack foiled it became easy for Jeff and Bathran to deal the killing blows. This was the second of the great moments.
The third happened immediately after. I revealed that the fish was actually the transmogrified missing person! The reveal that they had accidentally killed the person they were trying to rescue went better than expected. They didn’t seem cheated as though I had pulled a fast one on them, but horrified of their characters actions. It worked perfectly. (I had several ideas about how the scene might end since the fish take out didn’t need to be fatal, but it was so fast and brutal that this was the only one i could bring to bear.)
Scene 4 (Set Piece 2) – This one was a bit anti-climax after scene 3. The concept was for the party to realize that the threat truly lay somewhere beneath the lake and to go beneath and face the sirens that had been luring men to them for decades. Unfortunately, the party balked at going under the water. I had to make it really explicit that this was the only course of action and this felt like the only time I was really forcing the plot forward.
The idea of the scene was to primarily play up the environmental hazards – no oxygen, freezing water, darkness, restricted movement and not the sirens themselves. I was really hoping they’d use scuba and wetsuits, but they figured out a magical way instead.
This scene ended up playing out as another social conflict with roleplay. I didn’t force any of the environment hazards after all. It just seemed hamfisted after forcing them into the water in the first place. I did get to pay off my creepy ghost story from earlier by having the drowned child turn up in the siren’s lair alive and unaged.
The game ended with a couple new complications introduced into the campaign, but the adventure itself completely resolved.
It was a pretty nifty evening. Thanks to those who came out!