Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Complex: Episode 1

I burned my brain out yesterday running the first session of Smallville: The Complex (after creating characters during Pathways a couple of weeks ago). After a big night's sleep, I am finally ready to start thinking about writing an actual play post. The session went for five hours all up, although I had some technical hitches with Hangout for the first half hour (and needed to install Chrome instead of using Safari), and +Lloyd's connection started playing up in the last hour. I think about the last 45 minutes was wrapping things up, Tag Scenes and Growth, and discussing the session.

I was worried my prep was a bit vague and wouldn't take up the scheduled three to four hours, but on top of our technical hitches there was a lot of rules-explaining and carefully walking through procedures for Contests and the like. Sarah was a no-show, so I had to re-work a couple of plot elements involving Zoe. As we started running low on time, I had to cut out a few things I was planning to introduce, but it's fine - I can re-work them for a later Episode.

Episode 1: Priorities

Starring (in alphabetical order):
  • +Lloyd Gyan as Aki Enoki, a Japanese grad student on a gap year in Australia.
  • +David Miessler-Kubanek as Tony Pearson, the apartment's maintenance man, and an ex-hacker from California.
  • +Steve Moore as Takeshi Sekiguchi, a retired Japanese hitman whose Penthouse apartment takes up the entire top floor.
Produced and Directed by Craig Judd.

At the Shogun Japanese Karaoke Restaurant, Aki and Aomo are out for a night of singing. Aki gets harassed by a drunk; Aomo is useless, but luckily Takeshi is standing at the bar. He grabs the drunk's shoulder and wheels him around, sitting him down and giving him a beer to distract him. Aki and Takeshi strike up a conversation, with Aomo (who knows both of them) acting as a social intermediary. Takeshi has a sudden niggling premonition of flowing water...

Late at night on the way home from Casey's Pub, Tony sees Zoe, who is scared she's being followed by a couple of thugs in suits. Tony calms her and escorts her home, then goes out to find the stalkers - but they have disappeared. 

Takeshi returns home to discover the Penthouse is flooding from a burst pipe in the kitchen. He puts in a call to Tony, the maintenance man.

When Tony gets back home he senses the ancient yet childlike presence of The Complex entity, which he has named Sheila. She tells him that "something's missing..." and wanders away again. Before he can follow and ask her what's missing, he gets that phone-call from Takeshi and has to organise his plumbing tools.

Aki's writing a blog post on her balcony when she hears a loud argument from the apartment next door. Although she doesn't like to cause a scene, she steels herself to go knock on their door. As she enters the hall, Tony belts up the stairs with his tools. She asks him for help, but he's torn between duties and thinks Aki's just being useless. In the end he quickly bangs on the door and tells them to keep it down, then runs upstairs again. Aki manages to duck back inside before the argumentative door is opened.

After a couple of Tests against Extras, this was our first actual Contest between Leads. Aki asked for help, and Tony said she should deal with it herself. Aki Challenged her "It's my DUTY to be useful to friends and family d12" because she was actually trying to impose her sense of duty on someone else. Against a slew of d12's, Tony didn't have much chance; he became Insecure d12, but Lloyd chose not to Stress him Out of the scene.

It underscored early on that Smallville's core mechanics get involved right in the thick of the roleplaying. What would normally be an in-character conversation in most other games is punctuated by dice-rolling. As I said at the end of the session, a game like Savage Worlds is all about skirmish combat - it has lots of rules for combat, measurements and miniatures and so on, so most of the dice rolling happens during combat. Smallville is about arguments, so there are rules for resolving arguments, and you mostly roll dice during disagreements. Instead of considering tactical options, you have to think about internal motivations and beliefs. It can be a bit of a stumbling block, especially for players used to a more character-immersive style of play, but I hope once the group gets used to the idea the dice will flow as freely as words.

In the Penthouse, Tony discovers that the pipe was apparently forcibly pulled apart or sheared through. Takeshi lets drop that he's put in an offer to buy the building. After that, the complex settled down for the night.

*     *     *

In the morning Tony is stopped by Bruce Longridge, one of the couple who were arguing last night. He's a large, muscular gorilla of a man, with darkly tanned skin and hairy shoulders. He complains that their shower head has broken and is spraying water. Tony sends a message to all residents, and shuts the water off before heading out to buy plumbing supplies.

Aki's working a shift at "Coffee Cigarettes & Cake" (CCC). Takeshi buys some cigarettes and a coffee, and takes a table. Tessa Longridge, one of Aki's arguing neighbours, comes in to buy cigarettes. She's wearing sunglasses, but can't hide a large black eye. Aki sells her the cigarettes cheaply, and Takeshi tries to take her aside to talk... but she protests, and her husband Bruce comes in and sees them together. Bruce takes Tessa outside and Takeshi follows, confronting Bruce and decking him with one punch. However, Tessa doesn't appear grateful, and tries to help Bruce. Takeshi goes back inside to finish his coffee.

Tony arrives back at the apartments and runs into Bob, who's come to see if he wants to buy some jewellery he got off a guy at the pub. He ribs Toy about his "interest" in Zoe, but Tony declines his offer and suggests he try Aki, since Bob likes her. Bob agrees, and heads off to CCC.

Back at CCC, Aki innocently asks Takeshi what his job is. He's caught off-guard and awkwardly explains that he's a retired businessman, which she would have readily accepted... except that she caught a glimpse of one of the pistols inside his jacket. She immediately walked off and ended her shift.

This was an interesting Contest, which Lloyd didn't originally intend to be a Contest, but we talked him into it. Aki was just making conversation, and asked Takeshi what he did for a living. She would have been perfectly happy to buy whatever answer she gave him. Steve and I recognised it as a potential Contest because Takeshi was likely to become stressed by having to come up with a cover story.

While most Contests are initiated by the Lead telegraphing an intent ("Tell me who you really are!"), this was a more subtle and meta-level Contest that was fundamentally initiated by the player. Aki as a character had no idea she was inadvertently subjecting Takeshi to an awkward moment; a Complication on his part led to Aki seeing his handgun. The Contest in this case allowed us to play up the dramatic irony of Aki unwittingly hitting on a dangerous truth. Given that at least two of the Leads have secret identities, I think this sort of Contest is valid and important to allow those characters to show the audience who they are.

Tony investigated the plumbing in a couple of problem apartments. In one, he was watched indifferently by a teenage girl of Arabic extraction who was home alone, and he discovered that a pipe under the bathtub had been pulled out of its fitting even though the floor around it hadn't been disturbed.

As he entered the Longridge apartment to fix their shower head, Tony interrupted a burglar who tried to flee further into the apartment. Tony hit him in the leg with a flung length of metal pipe, but when he chased after the guy he'd apparently vanished into thin air! Tony began to suspect that the burglar had a power that allowed him to travel through water pipes.

Slightly freaked out, Aki was on her way back to the apartment when she ran into Bob in the street. She tried to brush him off, but short Japanese girl vs. lanky Aboriginal man meant he easily kept up with her. He showed her the jewellery, and she immediately recognised it as her own! Bob gave it to her, and said he bought it off a guy in the pub. Aki jumped to the conclusion that Tony must have used his maintenance access key to enter her apartment and take it!

Tony returned to The Dungeon to discuss things with Sheila, who cryptically revealed that since something was missing, some of the prisoners were starting to leak out. Before he could find out more, Aki knocked on his door, demanding an explanation about her stolen items. Tony realised that the burglar he saw must have stolen them, but as he had no proof, he invited her in to discuss the situation. She refused, threatening to go to the police. Before anyone could do anything, however, there was a bang as something in The Dungeon fell over. They ran to Tony's workshop, where the burglar was attempting to bandage his leg with a first-aid kit. He had knocked over a stack of tools. Tony tackled him, and Aki threw something at his head, but the criminal simply phased through the solid concrete floor and disappeared! He left his backpack behind, in which Tony found some other stolen goods, and Aki's laptop.

Takeshi was riding up to the Penthouse in the elevator when he felt the "whump" of a small explosion. He stopped the car and prised the doors open, hearing a door banging and stomping footsteps before he climbed into the hallway. The door to the Longridge apartment was open, with a trail of footprints burned into the hall carpet, leading downstairs. Takeshi discovered the charred body of Bruce Longridge inside the flat, and pursued the arsonist with his guns drawn. He heard a manly voice yelling "WARDEN! WHERE ARE YOU?" - although it sounded like it was spoken by a woman. Leaping down the stairs, he startled the Arabic girl that had been watching Tony earlier, although she looked fairly startled to begin with. Takeshi's age caught up with him, and he didn't manage to catch up with the murderer before they reached the foyer.

Hearing the ruckus and the calls for the Warden, Tony and Aki came up from the Dungeon. In the foyer, they saw Tessa Longridge transformed - her skin was black, charred and cracked, but inside the cracks they saw not blood but a fiery glow. Upon seeing Tony, she unleashed a stream of fire from her mouth. Takeshi finally arrived, aiding Tony by spraying Tessa with bullets. Aki deflected the flaming blast with her force field power, and Tony used a pipe to lever one of the mains pipes off the wall. He was struggling, but then the pipe just sheared through. He saw the Arabic girl hiding in the stairwell, and she'd gestured towards the pipe just as it twisted free. Tessa was engulfed in a deluge of water, apparently exorcising the fiery entity and returning her to her unconscious but normal self. As the water subsided, everyone just kind of looked at each other. The Arabic girl quietly disappeared upstairs.


Tony and Takeshi bonded by disposing of Bruce's body in the building's incinerator, so Tessa wouldn't get in trouble. Tessa was devastated, but Takeshi gave her some financial aid so she could start a new life far, far away.

Takeshi changed his Challenged Value to "JUSTICE by any means."

Aki was pretty shaken up by the whole thing, but she finally has something interesting to write about on her blog that nobody reads. Sitting on her balcony, she decides to get to the bottom of all the weird stuff that's been happening. As she publishes her first post, she stares off into the distance and smiles...

Aki rewrote her Challenged Value to "Everyone has a DUTY to be useful to their family and friends."



Pan down through the foyer, and the Dungeon, and lower still, through concrete and earth, to a sandstone cell beneath the foundations. In the dim light of a mobile phone, the burglar pushes himself desperately against the cold walls, but to no avail. "Why won't it work?!" he wails. "Help! HEEELP!" The camera pulls back, the room a tiny island of light in the middle of a sea of darkness. 

Cut to black.

Next Episode...

David won't be able to join us in a fortnight's time, so I'll be planning an episode that focusses on the fractured relationship between Takeshi and Aki. I'm also planning to involve some connections from beyond The Complex itself, since the building is largely Tony's (David's) domain.

The first session was a blast, and I really enjoyed running it. I'll know next time to not prepare so much stuff! It looks like I can rely on these players to pick up the ball and run with it; they're more than capable of generating their own content.

As the players become more comfortable with the system, I'll be easing off a bit on suggesting when a Contest might be appropriate. It's technically the players' responsibility to call for a Contest, but it's easy to forget in the heat of the moment when you're used to resolving disputes by talking through them in character, with no dice involved.

>>> Preparing Episode 2
>>> Episode 2

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