Before the Beta test version of the Skeleton Crew RPG is unleashed upon the world, I thought I’d share some notes from the Alpha testing. What follows is a brief recap of the 1st test campaign, and a more in-depth look at the first session of the 2nd campaign.
If it sounds like fun to you, sign up for the free beta test here:
THE PRE- CAP
In the beginning
Skeleton Crew didn’t start as a game… it started as a comic, written by my sister, Monica Marier, with art also by Monica (she’s talented in a plethora of fields… it’s kind of annoying.) Some features, such as Zomboy the lovable zombie, the toddler medium Peek-a-boo, and the city of New Manchester, were borrowed from a superhero story I was writing; and while the capes are gone, the same over-the-top, anything-can-happen mentality persists. Minotaurs? Sure. Alien invaders? You betcha. Vampire chimpanzees? Check out issue #4.
It’s that same flexibility that inspired us to turn Skeleton Crew into an rpg- a world this weird could hold hundreds of strange adventures, with any mix of hero types. Shortly into its genesis, we became aware of FATE, and the wonderful, malleable system it offered. Since we were writers before we were gamers, the story-driven FATE system seemed a perfect match (aaaaand the fact that it’s free to publish under OGL didn’t hurt none neither.) We modded the skills, built us a framework, and gave it a go.
RPG – Early Days – You want WHO to GM?!?
The first draft was done, and it was time to give it a whirl. Unfortunately, no one in our group really had spent as much time with FATE or the rulebook as myself (the head writer.) Which means that the GMing for the first half-dozen games fell to me- someone who never GMed before in his life. Heck, I’d never played a decently run rpg game until a few years ago. I ran a few one-shot games and tweaked things accordingly. It was time for a real campaign.
Our first in-house test group consisted of five good friends, who played the following strange characters:
- A soft-spoken mad scientist
- A melodramatic teen emotional-vampire
- An elf cleric, fresh from the Feyrealms
- A kleptomaniac human lab-rat who was literally falling apart
- A cyborg cop
Just like the Fate Core book suggests, we established world issues and problems, which set the stage for a nasty new street drug called “Roar,” which is turning the users into mutated monsters. All sources lead to Merrick Industries, and their shady lead developer, Dr. Socrates Madonna. During the last adventure, the group followed the clues to a rival street gang selling their own knock-off version of the drug, called “Gronk,” which transformed its’ users into Chupacabras. We never finished the campaign, sadly, but I learned a lot from my plucky players.
My slightly adapted skill list seemed to work fine. We also found the default Fate Core campaign start-up to be an excellent for creating the facts of the world. Based from those facts, we could also derive the mood of the piece; but sadly, it didn’t quite gel with the genre, resulting in a piece that was grittier and darker than I had anticipated. Also, most of the player characters had great personal missions, but had no unified goal in mind, with an insurmountable range of experience; this made the Phase Trio Creation system seemed forced, and it was a bother trying to find an antagonist that seemed to fit the personal mission of each PC. (We have some tweaks to address this, but more on that later.)
Any further one-shot test games seemed to go well, with positive feedback from co-writers and strangers alike. However, whenever a hiccup occurred, I couldn’t tell: was it a flaw in my adaptation, or a gaff from a rookie Gamemaster? Even when we played around with other Fate & FAE game settings, it was always left to me to run the show.
THE NEW CAMPAIGN
Which is why I’m super psyched about tonight’s game. For a change, the game will be run by Steve. It’ll be his first time with FATE, but he’s been GMing for a long time, and he is a blast to play with. He’s as smooth as a Kung Fu Swan – if there’s any effort behind his kickassery, it’s hidden below the water, where you can’t see it. It’s very reassuring, which frees us up to try all sorts of shenanigans. In our old 4th edition D&D game, our rookie players would unknowingly break all sorts of rpg no-no’s- Steve was too polite and too open-minded to say no, and would roll with it like a champ. (How could WE know you’re not supposed to torch the bandit-filled mansion from the outside?)
This game also gives me my first chance to play a PC in a Fate game. (More on that later.)
The Team – this is one of unique features in the Skeleton Crew game. When playing Skeleton Crew, you don’t need to pin down the genre, as it’s already loosely defined- supernatural + comedy + horror + adventure. However, there are hundreds of different variations within that, and in our test campaign, we found it far too easy to slip into a subgenre that the players weren’t anticipating or wouldn’t welcome.
Before creating your characters, the group agrees on a Team Concept – this is the motivation and role of the team. Some examples we include in the SC rulebook are “Monster Slayers,” “Paranormal Investigators,” “Freaks on the Run,” and so on. Having no idea what Steve had in mind, we went with one of the most versatile team concepts, “Mercenaries for Hire.” It doesn’t matter what it is, if you pay us, we’ll do it.
Next, I poured over the Skeleton Crew character types, looking for inspiration.
MORTAL STATES & PROFESSIONS
A large chunk of the SC RPG book is composed of the Mortal State & Professions sections. If this was a fantasy hack/slash, those would be the Race & Class section.
Mortal State – The living / unliving condition of the person. There’s boring humans, of course, but also lots of undead & inhuman options: zombies, ghosts, fey, frankensteinian constructs, and so on. Unlike Dresden Files* RPG, playing one of these monsters doesn’t come with a grocery list of issues or existential drama- a zombie can be just a normal guy, except a little smellier and harder to kill.
Professions – The occupations of people- as you’d expect, there’s researchers, slayers, mystics, mediums, mad scientists, etc. These are mostly to spice up any human characters, but there’s nothing to stop an undead person from being whatever profession they want too.
BTW, if you want to play around with generating your own random Mortal State + Profession, visit here: http://www.generatorland.com/usergenerator.aspx?id=7562
While a creative** guy like me would have fun inventing a brand new character that’s not in the book, I thought it best to test one of the mortal states or professions that had been absent from our test games. I decided to go with the Mystic- the character able to see the past, present and future through their psychic powers.
Why a Mystic?: Because unlike a slashing slayer, the Mystic can do something in Fate that he can’t easily do in other game formats: he can help shape the story. A mystic works best when you have a genius GM- someone who can give you extremely vague hints of what’s to come; or, as an alternative, lets the PLAYER come up with the future vagaries, which will be folded into the narrative.
When I came up with the mystic, the inspiration for the vague predicting power came from the X-Files episode, in which a psychic asked about the location of a body. He tells them of a “fat, white, Nazi stormtrooper.” Later, at the murder site, Mulder & Scully see a propane tank that, if you kind of squint at it, looks like a fat, white, Nazi stormtrooper. The predication: a hint that’s completely useless and random in the present, but will help confirm something in the future.
So, here’s my guy:
ZULTANO, THE ALL SEEING
Zultano is a man of mystery… and by “mystery,” we mean “bald faced lies.” He frequently spills out stories of his past, all of which are contradictory. The only facts you that seem to stick is that he spent many years in a circus (as a fortune-teller, knife thrower, and many other odd jobs,) that he’s had a fortune-telling booth (possibly out of his van,) and that he is occasionally hired by police as a consultant. His accent is of vaguely Eastern European origin, but like the rest of him, it could be complete fantasy. He is capable of receiving actual visions of the future, but he “cries wolf” with so many fake predictions, it’s hard to actually believe him.
High Aspect: Real Mystic, Fake Gypsy
Trouble: Compulsive liar
Appearance: Slick, Greasy Carney (smells like cabbage)
Personality: Life of de Party
Origin: In my (indistinct) foreign land…
Motivation: Gold & Glory (hold the God)
Tools: Hodge-Podge Tarot Deck***, & Lots of silver knives (I get cheep!)
Teammate Connection: TBD
+4 – Sixth Sense
+3 Deception, Burglary
+2 Shooting, Athletics, Notice
+1 Fighting, Empathy, Rapport, Will
Pre-ja Vu – Once per scene, may use Sixth Sense to attempt to see the future. The future comes in an extremely vague, dreamlike manner – a blurry image, a snippet of a dialogue, a general emotion, etc. This prediction may be created by the GM, or the GM may let you create it. A successfully created future aspect has a free invoke on it. If or when a future scene includes something close to your prophesy, you may invoke the aspect to help you get an edge on events (ex. dodge an attack, to predict a character’s response.) You cannot have more than three successful prophecies per session.
I See All – Gain +2 to Deception when using Create an Advantage to convince someone of a fake prophecies relating to him or her.
Silver Throwing Knives – When using your silver knives, you get +1 to Shooting and Fighting when Attacking Vampires, Werewolves, and any other undead weak to silver.
Other People’s Moneys – You have tons of wallets that you’ve stolen earlier. You may use Burglary instead of Resources when spending cash & credit.
Physical Stress: 2
Mental Stress: 3
Team Part II – Next was the Team Dynamic, which is the general attitude of the teammates towards each other- friendly? familial? This would appear as an aspect, such as the Unfriendly dynamic aspect, “If We Get Chased, I’m Tripping You.” We went with “Tossed Together,” meaning our group starts a little jumbled and untrusting. Each person has been in the company for a little, but have done most of their work solo, working with one or two others at most.
I introduced the game to Zultano, and ran my Psychic ability past GM Steve (with a mystic, it’s good form to run it by the GM first.) Here are the other members of our motley crew:
- Luke Temple – A LARPer possessed by the ghost of a warrior mage. He wears a cheap Partay City ren faire outfit, and is armed with foam weapons, which carry with them ancient magic for smiting the undead. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, as he screams and yells at ghosts his friends can’t see.
- Donal Sidhean – A fairling (half human, half fairy) pest exterminator. He seems to have some connection to the pied piper of Hamelin, but what it is exactly is unclear.
- Andrew Fletcher – Dhampir (half human, half vampire) that’s a vampire slayer, without the emo attitude. He’s a working class Liverpoolian thug with a crossbow and a smile.
– A massive Clockwork Golem – with a chain gun.
Our first session ran a bit long, so before we left for the night, we brainstormed some local Urban Legends.
Urban Legends – These are another new Skeleton Crew feature, intended to pepper the town with strange rumors that may be idle gossip, the gospel truth, or something in between. Our group came up with:
- Off-putting Observatory –Witnesses by the New Manchester Observatory (probably teens making out) report sightings of a strange, tall figure hiding the shadowy woods. Observers claimed that it resembled the internet character “Slenderman.”
- Load of Croc – New Manchester Civil Engineers have witnessed squid-crocodile hybrids – henceforth known as “sqrocs” – breeding in the sewers below the Dockland area.
- Star Power – Members of the local sci-fi club at Hubris University stand by their theory that the Kardashian family members are secretly Kardassians from Star Trek (or a similar species of alien that inspired the Star Trek creators.)
- Xenoarcheology – Hubris U was stirred as a promising young adjunct professor published a paper declaring that aliens influenced ancient civilization, and that they are secretly walking among us. The Heads of the Archaeology Department were quick to rebuke it, citing substantial evidence indicating that all alien life forms on Earth went extinct long before humans ever evolved.
- Bi-Weekly Globe – A tabloid article, titled “I Married a Sparkly Vampire.” The new vampire groom supposedly has skin that shines like diamonds, drinks deer blood, smells like maple syrup, and looks like Robert Patterson. The editors claimed that Robert Patterson himself was unavailable for comment.
*Note: Not a dig against Jim Butcher, Evil Hat, or anyone else attached with the awesome Dresden Files RPG. All of us here love the Dresden Files books and the RPG. However, some days you want high stakes and pathos, while other days you want a light farce. Like they said in the musical A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Forum, “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”
**Creative, adj. also see “scatter-brained.” “Pompous.” “Self important.”
*** Hodge-Podge Tarot Deck – I found a random object generator, which I roll whenever making a fake prediction. “Oh, the 5 of Spoons… that’s very bad. Only way to stay self is to be very generous vith your money.”