DM Screen 1 – Escape from Phyrexia

Hey guys, it’s Dan from the present. Welcome to the first of the DM Screen posts that includes my actual GM notes from an episode of Extraordinary League! A few things to touch on before we get started:

First, I’ll be annotating these notes with my own thoughts and clarifications from the present. I’ll use this as an opportunity to explain why I made certain decisions, or how the players’ decisions in-game changed certain directions of the story. Any annotations I make will be bold and italicized, like this text here.

Secondly, this first adventure was largely intended to be an introduction to the campaign. All of the players had used the Marvel RPG system previously, but in some cases, it had been a long time, and I wanted to give them a chance to refamiliarize themselves with the system, as well as with their characters and with each other. I also wanted to ease the listener into the system we were using. To that end, this adventure is very straightforward: basically a hallway with several different types of enemies to fight, with some empty space for them to explore a bit and roleplay with each other.

This brings me to my third point. The Extraordinary League RPG released through Smash Fiction is written and run differently from the way I often run such games around the table. A lot of these differences are due to the fact that this game is intended for consumption by a wider audience. When the only people who will experience a game are those playing it, I’m much more willing to give them room to play around and meander. However, I’ve listened to many actual play podcasts in the past which have ranged from mediocre to just plain bad, and I’ve realized that what are fun in-jokes for the players of a game can become intolerable stretches of just listening to nerds laughing at their own jokes and spending way too much time on side tasks that don’t matter and aren’t fun to listen to. As a result, I’ve taken a bit of a stronger narrative hand in League than I do in some of my other games in order to make sure that the episodes remain fun to listen to for people other than us. That isn’t to say that the players don’t have a hand in determining the direction of the plot or the game, but for the sake of the listening audience, I like to come up with some fun scenes, interesting set pieces, and dynamic characters ahead of time.

Part of making this fun to listen to is ensuring that my narration is solid and engrossing. Therefore, I’ll usually write out some descriptive narrative text ahead of time for stuff that I anticipate the characters will run into. If they go somewhere I don’t expect, I’ll just ad lib the narration, but I find that, at least in my case, coming up with descriptions ahead of time helps me to make them more immersive. Such narration will be written in unbolded italics below. Additionally, aside from the pre-written narration and enemy stat blocks, most of my notes are brief and idiosyncratic, designed to remind me of the stuff I came up with ahead of time, so I’ve made an effort to expand and clarify those notes to make them better understandable for those of you reading them.

As always, your questions and comments are welcome.

It happened quickly, but not all at once. Each of you began to notice strange flickers of movement out of the corners of your eyes, but didn’t see anything when you turned to look. Occasionally you might have opened a door, but the room beyond wasn’t the room that should have been there–only when you blinked, it was back to normal. Sometimes, when everything else was quiet, you might have heard the echoes of distant machinery, like a vast and terrible engine drawing slowly closer. Only for a moment, though.

Until, of course, they came for you.

They seemed to emerge out of nowhere, an oily spot forming in the air which disgorged one or two or three or more strange creatures–skeletal, with lower bodies like three-legged crabs or spiders, and elongated heads ending in eyeless faces and mouths stretched into a grotesque rictus grin.

Dante, you encountered these things during a brief moment of relaxation between jobs; you managed to get your hand on your sword and your guns, but before you could bring them to bear, they hit you with something that felt like an insect sting.

Mordin, you were on your homeworld of Sur’Kesh, working clandestinely to discover a safe way to reverse-engineer the krogan genophage, when these alien creatures appeared in your lab and struck with frightening speed.

Stitch, you and Lilo were coming home from the beach, having appeased Pudge the fish with a peanut butter sandwich, when these frightening creatures emerged ahead of you. You told Lilo to run home quickly as you turned to face them, but by that point they were already upon you.

Archer, you… don’t actually remember much. You were in your penthouse, maybe? Or maybe in ISIS headquarters? Probably in a supermodel’s bedroom or something. The point is, you had had a few martinis by this point, so the details escape you, but you’re pretty sure you were doing something really awesome when these scary-looking guys appeared.

In each case, the invaders struck you with some sort of injection device. A creeping numbness immediately spread through your body, rendering you first immobilized, then unconscious.

You have no idea how long it’s been since you were taken, but you do have some fragmented memories of what has occurred since then. You remember more of those creatures, many with variations in their shape, but clearly recognizable as being cut from the same unnatural cloth. You remember a place that smells like smoke and gasoline, darkness, pain, the sensation of being watched and studied. Violation. It is the longest, most terrifying nightmare you’ve ever experienced, and you want nothing more than to wake up from it.

Then, suddenly, you do. With the sound of a distant boom fading from your ears, you open your eyes to find yourselves in tubes of glass and metal. You are floating in some sort of green liquid which you seem to have no problem breathing. Beyond the glass of your tube, you can see a room filled with what are unmistakably stained dissection tables and nasty-looking medical instruments. The cold, artificial lights in the room are only now flickering back to life, and the beings beyond your tube seem to be struggling to keep their footing, as though they had just experienced an earthquake.

The beings. You realize with a start that these are the same variety of creature that took you in the first place. Again, there is some variation in their appearance, but all have that combination of skeleton and arachnid properties. Something has clearly happened that they did not anticipate. For the first time in you-don’t-know-how-long, you are awake and aware. And they don’t seem to have noticed.

What do you do?

The heroes begin in fluid-filled tubes which are relatively easy to break (Gd damage or more will shatter them). (During the actual episode, some of the characters asked to look around the inside of the tubes for a way out that didn’t involve physically breaking them, so I introduced an internal mechanism that allowed them to open the lid of the tube.) Their weaponry is nowhere nearby—they’ll have to rely on their native powers and skills. The room is medium-sized and contains a few tables and instruments, as well as their foes: four Priests of Gix.

Priest of Gix (4) – these ones are more human-looking than most Phyrexians, but they have metal plates on their foreheads and their left arms have been replaced with a cybernetic one that contains multiple tools useful for surgery: saws, scalpels, vices, etc
F          A         S          E          R         I           P
Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd

Health: 40

The heroes are in repurposed tunnels in the London Underground. Looking around, it’s obvious that this is an area that was conquered by these creatures and has begun to be altered. Most of the surfaces are concrete, but many surfaces have been replaced by a strange dark metal–and not in regular rectangular sheets, either, but in organic-looking chunks. Piles of detritus from the pre-invasion Tube lie stacked in out-of-the-way areas, and include signs, benches, and pieces of subway cars.

The heroes’ gear is located a short distance down the hall, spread out on various tables. Three more Priests of Gix are picking over them, examining them and performing various tests and analyses on them, some of which involves scanning them in a machine attached to a large computer screen (Dante’s sword is currently in the machine, visible through the transparent walls of the machine). Three Phyrexian Slayers stand guard nearby. The hall is irregularly lit by harsh artificial lighting; it looks like some of the lights were disabled during that recent tremor. This gives the heroes reasonable cover to sneak up on the Phyrexians with their gear. (Of course, during the actual game, everyone except Dante totally ignores this cover and just goes for the kill. I try to help, I really do, but sometimes they just wanna charge in and attack.)

Priest of Gix (3)
F          A         S          E          R         I           P
Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd       Gd

Health: 40

Phyrexian Slayer (3) – a being with a relatively small and spindly body and upper arms, but the upper arms and head are swollen and stretched to a hulking degree. One huge hand terminates in long, jabbing fingers and a buzzsaw; the other hand has been replaced by a single long, curved blade. A pair of small wings stretch from its back. The entirety of this creature is covered in a carapace that gives it the appearance of a biomechanical insect.
F          A         S          E          R         I           P
Ex        Gd       Rm      Ex        Pr         Ty        Gd

Health: 80

Flight: Ty

As the heroes recover their gear, they may notice that the script displayed on the computer screen is totally unlike any language they’ve ever seen… and yet all of them can read it. (This gets explained at the end of episode 2… stay tuned for that.) If they dive in, with successful Reason (+Technology) checks they can find entries on themselves, along with some notes on their individual physiologies, weaponry, and some measurements of various forces in their home universes (gravity, electromagnetism, magic, etc). Furthermore, they can find a general alert that was sent to this terminal from elsewhere warning of an incursion of heretics and rebels–that seems to have been the source of the explosion the heroes felt and heard earlier. The general tone of the alert is largely unconcerned; it mentions that a contingent of various anti-incursion forces have already engaged the enemy, and that a Devouring Strossus is en route to their location. The heroes can learn of the location of this battle–it appears to be relatively nearby, albeit on the surface level.

Continuing further through these hallways, the heroes head up a set of stairs and onto the surface. Looking around, they can see that they have just emerged from subway steps onto the sidewalk of a nightmarish city. It’s obvious that this used to be a relatively normal human city, but evidence of this alien invasion and corruption is rampant. The black organic metal spreads in patches across streets, buildings, and abandoned vehicles. There’s evidence that combat occurred in this area some time ago, but any hint of whatever resistance the natives put up against these creatures is quickly being covered over by the invaders’ “repairs.”

An explosion some distance down the street catches the heroes’ attention. Turning, they can see that the front of a nearby building has blown outward, sending several of the alien creatures flying through the air, trailing smoke. Something inside is putting up an impressive fight against these things.

(I figured the heroes would want to check out the explosion, especially after hearing about another force attacking their captors. If they had gone in a different direction, I would have ad libbed what they found—I figured that, by this point, we would be close enough to the end of the episode that I could improvise for a few minutes, find an interesting place to end the session, and come up with a different way of introducing Buffy and co. in the next session. In that case, my goal would have been using the time trying to impress upon them the sheer, unstoppable numbers of the Phyrexians.

This brings me to my first bit of GMing advice. A lot of GMs mistakenly believe that they have to either totally predetermine what is going to happen (“railroading”), or allow their players complete and total freedom to do whatever they want. The first case can leave players feeling as though they have no real control over the path of the game, while the second can leave players paralyzed with indecision or leading to them unintentionally making uninteresting decisions. I typically prefer a third option: when players come to a decision point, I’ll try to offer them two or three options to choose from, but also remind them that they’re free to come up with their own ideas as well if they prefer. This gives players authority over the direction of the story without putting them on the spot to completely come up with an interesting storytelling decision at the drop of a hat.)

As they head toward the exploded building front, the heroes can catch a glimpse through other buildings of the skyline of the city they’re in–all of them can recognize the silhouette of the Palace of Westminster, being slowly worked over and picked clean by flying drones. They’re in London.

Looking inside the building, you can see the first floor of the remains of a mall or department store, a large open area lined with storefronts with four open floors of walkways around the walls above. At first, all you see is flashes of light and shadow–it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust, but it becomes clear that almost a dozen of the alien creatures have surrounded and are closing in on a small, eclectic group of humans.

But the humans are putting up a considerable fight. One of them is a towering man wearing a black leather jacket and pants, boots, and sunglasses, firing a minigun braced against his hip one-handed. As he slowly turns, directing an arc of death at the alien creatures, you see that half of his face looks as though it has been torn away, revealing a metallic skull with a glowing red eye beneath. The second human is clearly a child, though his age is tough to nail down–middle school-aged, maybe? In any event, he’s wearing a brown jacket and pants over a green turtleneck, with a satchel slung over his back and sporting an aviator cap and goggles. He’s standing there, feet spread apart, simply waving his hands around; after a moment, you realize that he seems to be picking up and throwing objects and enemies telekinetically. The third human stands back to back with the kid and may not be a human at all, given her prominently pointed ears. She wears a long pink and white dress, and her waist-length blonde hair is tied into a braid. She too stands relatively still, waving her arms in specific patterns, launching bolts of fire from her fingertips when she does so. The final human is wearing a black tank top and jeans and has her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. She’s moving incredibly quickly, delivering a jump kick that sends one creature flying before backflipping past another, taking its head off with a strange-looking red axe as she does so.

Unfortunately, these fighters don’t seem to notice that the aliens’ strategy doesn’t seem to be to take them down, but to hold them in place as two more of the Slayers sneak toward them from the open area above them. What do you do?

Phyrexian Slayer (2)
F          A         S          E          R         I           P
Ex        Gd       Rm      Ex        Pr         Ty        Gd

Health: 80

Flight: Ty

Once the heroes manage to take out the slayers and the fighters finish off their enemies, they eye each other warily. After a moment, the fighters seem to come to a silent conclusion. The large one with the metal skull showing takes a step forward and is about to speak when the blonde woman with the axe speaks instead: “Come with us if you want to live.” There’s a brief pause, then she looks at the towering man. “What? Were you gonna say something?”

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