NPC Touchstones & Two months later…

I started running an Aethertide game over Skype, so this week will be all me talking about that. Today, I’ll talk about a couple GM tricks that I used during it to attempt group cohesion we did during the character creation/world creation/playing out the initial meeting.

To recap the premise: Something simultaneously bombs the Technocracy to near-extinction, takes out the more prominent Tradition Chantries. No one has a good read on who did. The Sleepers didn’t notice at all, not even at the exploding Technocrat buildings. And the Umbra closed fast and firm, which continually smothers the avatars of every Mage left alive. That happened two years prior to the start of the game.

The three characters in the game:

  • 0000::07A6 (Atlas Six), Full conversion It X Enlightened Shock Corps[1] (former Hermetic, brainwashed)
  • James Michael Smith, a.k.a. Operator 27, Disgruntled ex-NWO spook
  • Miss Abigail Jean Martin (Miss Abbey), Cultist of Ecstasy Kindergarden Teacher

So, you may have noticed one of these things doesn’t look like the other. This is typical for faction-rich games like the sort that White Wolf is known for. And I loves loves loves me this part of Mage, because it’s all about paradigm. But, if we’re all not careful, this because two or three stories, not one. The players are all top notch, and I’m a pretty good GM, but the risk is still there, so I employed some tricks to help bridge gaps. (If it fractures after a few sessions, I’d be happy with that, because then it organically fractured in the story rather than in the setup.)

The two tricks I used: the NPC touchstone and “Two Months Later…”

The NPC Touchstone

This is a pretty common trick for me. I introduce the idea of an NPC, say a couple sentences, and then ask other people about him or her. This time, it was a Oliver, Son of Ether who was a part of Project Aethertide. I asked questions like “When you saw this Reality Deviant, why did you not immediately terminate him?” or “What’s your intimate connection with Oliver?” We talked about the relationship here, so the characters coming from different backgrounds could have a common touchstone or cause, at least long enough to work to form their own naturally.

To make sure I was on the mark, I then asked, “So, on a scale from 1 to 10, how well do you trust Oliver?” The first person to speak up, the guy playing the full conversion cyborg, said “-2. He is withholding information from me.”

My response: “Uh, what can we do to make that a 5?” And we talked about the changes in the setup to make that happen. They talked about the cyborg beginning to remember his humanity because of this Etherite.

I asked for another, and the Spook player answers “Yeah, 0. I don’t trust shit.” Again, I asked what could change to make it a 5. Oliver provided his character information to further his quest for revenge against the remains of his Technocrat masters that, in his mind, lies to him.

The last person said “6,” and I left it there. We talked about why — she teaches his kid. We also talked a bit about the awkward parent-teacher conversations that must have made.

My initial instinct was right — just because we created a shared NPC experience didn’t mean they had bought into trusting him, and thus having a reason to plausibly trust each other out of the gate. Thus, the scale and adjustment.

Two Months Later…

Once we made characters, world details, etc., we started playing out the initial meeting. We didn’t have much time for it, so we were only going to get in one scene. But I wanted to start the next session with this out of the way. They were gathered with Oliver and a couple other Awake on Christmas Island (where there was also an MTV Spring Break party filming). They started the meeting, when someone else was using Dimensional Science to phase in and start executing them. They got Oliver with a fatal shot — one that was going to take a couple minutes before he was dead — and outright killed another by blowing her head off. The cyborg jumped into action, causing the spook to fight rather than run (“He’s…of course he is. Fuck. Damnit. Fuck. I jump in too. Fuck.”[2]) The Ecstatic was using Life to save Oliver. Action was had. Things about this threat were learned.

The characters sort of worked together, but also really had no reason to stick around. Maybe the two Technocrats, but a crisis with unknown assailants who attack gatherings of Awake means it’s probably better to not be around each other. We ended the scene, and I said “The first scene when we play next time takes place two months later. Over email, we’ll talk about why you’re still around each other at this point.”

Which made me think of that as a GM trick. If any opening scene doesn’t establish what you need to keep the game focused on one line rather than two or three or six, stop it after the first scene, advance time, and say “So, tell me why you’re still together?” This frees you from having to play out characters changing ideas, and instead just announcing that they do. We’ll see how well it works, but I think there’s some merit here.


I’ll be blogging more about how I’ve changed the system from my initial notes and things like that over the rest of this week.

– Ryan

[1] This is by far one of my most favorite concepts ever — the Enlightened Shock Corps are all full-conversion cyborgs made from brainwashed Tradition Mages. Only someone who was has the instincts to hunt down other Reality Deviants. And if they start to remember, their NWO handler wipes their memories again. The guy who is playing this, Jerry, ran a ESC one-shot for me and some friends years ago, where I further fell in love with Mage.

[2] Leonard Balsera ladies and gentlemen.


One Response to NPC Touchstones & Two months later…

  1. I love reading about these kinds of GM tricks.