Running the odd and the strange.

Getting a handle on 'big concept' RPGs.

There are games that are challenging to get a handle on. For me, it’s Nobilis at the deep end of the pool. What do I do with it? I’m prepping to run Nibiru on twitch.tv/ActualPlay. It’s not where Nobilis is, I feel like I can wade out there and be okay. The mechanics are simple, but not rules-light. D4s used two ways and two mechanics for effecting outcomes - one acts like fate or plot points, the other a flashback, specifically the recalling of lost memories.

Nibiru is a scifi, horror enigma. You play amnesiac folks who aren’t from around here; here being an immense space station? spaceship? An immense craft of unknown origins or purpose. The inhabitants have never seen the open sky, it’s not a thing -yet, yet…one of you might have memories of playing on a grass field under the bright sun of a summer’s day. Yeah.

I did session zero with my players to figure out what will we play. I think we got close to a starting premise…but it felt undercooked, at least to me. I could go back and say ‘Hey folks…let’s do another round’. I felt they already had a workload playing these adults who are just recently recalling memories of another place -they’ll need to ground that other place because it’s a well they’ll draw from to create new memories.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. We decide the game’s skill list as we play. Yep, your Nibiru game will have a different set of actions or skills than my game. Or any two games. Big Concept Game.

Lions and tigers and bears...

Cold opens are a favorite of mine, a hot drop into an unknown mess of events and we play to fill in the gaps and sort it out. My go-to hot mess is a funeral of a well-known NPC and a fight breaks out over the remains. I could also start with a running fight down a massive hall over some resources and ask questions as the thing evolves.

A day in the life is also a nice way to start. Just a normal day in PC land following the characters around asking questions: what’s the last job you’re cleaning up from? Did it go well or not? Any fallout?

We’ve got a MacGuffin and I don’t really like those, so I’m literally locking it up a session or two until I have more information. In Nibiru there are ‘Savior’ types, these folks can be the first points of contact for these memory-challenged PC vagabonds. I made one, Helen, she’s been looking after the characters for a cycle —three months approx. Now she’s probably got her own plans and dreams and whatnot. I’m sure they don’t include raising a set of lost adults.

Nibiru is not a huge setting in volume, it’s huge in concept. Yet, we know how to eat an elephant. Suruptu is the Big City, I like the idea of the characters and the players learning about it at the same time -it’s useful. The hazards I picked are things I’m interested in playing with. These picks also imply parts of the journey - there’s a waterway and a heavily trafficked tunnel. Each session I’ll pick a new thing or two to showcase from the world. A bite at a time.

The plan

Introduce Helen, likely via a short monologue in a one-sheet I give to the players before session one. It implies she cares about them, and it leaves them instructions: We’re moving. Lock up the MacGuffin, pack up, and meet me in the Big City.

In session one we’ll play out the trip to the Big City. Nibiru is a weird place this gives us a comfortable space to describe the skyless world. I’ve got some hazards meant to introduce more world bits and engage the mechanics.

Along the way I’ll ask how they first met Helen, what does she expect them to bring/do for her in the big city. Through questions, I’ll learn about Helen and the characters. The hazards will also be telling. By the end of the session - I’ll know some things.

One sheets are old tech that’s new again for me. A page or two of text, images, reference bits to invoke the mood of the game to be played. I’m finding a nice one sheet is good to reframe our zero session thoughts, drop easter eggs, and for sure build the mood. I’m a fan.

This approach is somewhere between a day in the life and a cold open. It gives a clear task to new players in the first session of a new and strange game. Helen is very loosely detailed, we’ll fill in the rest of her story in-game, and by we I mean the players by questions I ask or they ask. We know this shared building is also good buy-in for players. They tell me what Helen means to them as players and their characters.

What about that Macguffin?

“I don’t know. It’s a mystery!” - Philip Henslowe

play fearless!