Actual Play: a|state (part 5 of 9)

This is part 5 of 9. I’ll post another every few days so you have time to catch up.

If you’ve just run into this one somehow, this is an edited version of my actual play reports of a|state I wrote for our Slack while I was working on my deep dive of the game. Terrific campaign, learned a lot about not only a|state itself but FitD games and long-form play as well. The series started here.

Mission: The Shifted

Our a|state game last night took a turn toward the very weird and it was super interesting to watch play out.

One of the several threads running through our game is that their Corner (neighborhood) is wildly overgrown and green. At the center of the Corner is a huge tree, so notable that an entire local religion around it (The Green Path) has taken root (get it?) and is the main local challenge to the Third Church of God the Architect. Like, 2/3 the population is animist and the other 1/3 is Third Church. The religious tensions are palpable. Good stuff.

Anyway, early on I introduced a threat that Third Church was gonna eventually take a swing at destroying/burning down the big tree. Since the Third Church is the primary faith of the TCA (Israel to the PCs’ Palestine), they can probably pull it off. And I’ve got a clock ticking for the Third Church to actually do that. I keep my faction clocks secret but at the 50% mark you’re supposed to signal what’s going down in the fiction so the players can react accordingly. They know the tree’s at risk.

The Second Tree

The faith leader of The Green Path has been hinting at … another tree. He’s heard rumors, the local orphans have brought back twigs and fruits from it, it’s a whole thing. So this last mission phase, the alliance agreed with him to go find that tree so they can prepare to move their temple to it. The Path always needs a tree.

This second tree, though. It ain’t right. The branches are black and purple, and the fruits that sprout from it glow a sickly purple. Sappy, sticky, just weird and wrong. The in-game term for unreal stuff like this is Shifted. The City is full of Shifted stuff, which I’ve kept mostly out of view so far. But a Shifted tree is better than no tree at all, the Green Path figures.

Loose Ends

Our very first session a major NPC was murdered by a local gang backed by the TCA. This was one of their inciting events, baked into the “starting situation” template you pick to begin a campaign. During their first downtime, the NPC was buried in her husband’s rooftop farm (a Claim they chose, aligns well with the Corner’s overall green-ness). And he planted one of the purple tree’s branches to mark her gravesite. Fine, sad, life goes on.

Last downtime, the husband went missing from his farm. His ex-lover, our Ghostfighter PC, had been working the farm as her vice/escape, kind of stalker-y. She always felt ambivalent about his wife, of course, and had tried to get back with the husband after her death. So when the hubby went missing, the player started a personal clock: find Eddie (the farm owner).

Let’s Get Weird

The alliance gets some intel from the orphans about how they found the new tree in the first place. One of the orphans, off screen, had eaten one of the fruits and is now comatose in the orphanage. Occasionally she screams in terror. Nobody goes into her room. Our Lostfinder’s agenda is to figure out how to cure her, which is going to involve finding that tree.

When they go off to find the Shifted tree, shit gets super weird. Like premise-shifting weird, the kind of change in gears that makes your stomach drop with fear and excitement. I love that feeling so much!

The most troubling bit about what they hear from the orphans is that they can’t always find the tree. Sometimes they can, but sometimes they just can’t find their way again.

The neighborhood the tree is in is completely abandoned, an endless pile of buildings toppled atop other buildings. Ruins as far as the eye can see. Everyone understands this is a remnant of the Bombardment, an event in the City’s (probably fake, certainly misunderstood) history. The orphans are themselves a Claim! When you use them, you get a bonus die on Engagement when you enter the tunnels. Lucky for the troubleshooters, this endless zone of ruins is riddled with tunnels and semi-preserve interiors.

But why doesn’t anyone live in this space? The population needs places to sleep! According to the orphans, the rotting billies have eaten everyone.

Um What, Ew. Gross.

Nobody knows what the fuck a rotting billy is. The Lostfinder makes a Fortune roll on Examine (as he examines his own memories) and rolls a 1. All he’s got is urban legends about monsters that self-assemble from garbage and corpses. Fun!

Vito, the bravest boy among the orphans, has come along with the troublemakers to show them how to get into this rubble. But doing it involves walking backward toward a store front. Only then can you feel around and find a doorknob. If you look at it straight on, your eyes glance off the entry. You can’t get in.

This is the first time something truly supernatural has happened in the game, and the players are all oh so this is possible? Delicious.

Once they’re inside, it’s an 8-clock to Find The Weird Tree. They weigh the pros and cons of moving fast and dangerous vs slow and careful. The absolute fools, they think fast and dangerous is the way to go. Because they’re hungry for XPs from desperate actions. Hilariously, they started in a Controlled position! Who would throw that away? Advancement-motivated monkeys, that’s who.

Into The Ruins

First roll gets them deep into the ruins. It takes hours and requires climbing gear and very careful progress. They find themselves in an open space which, with some lantern illumination, reveals itself to be an old fancy theater stage. It’s mostly intact, in fact, floor lights and curtains and fancy box seats.

And they see two shapes sitting in a box seat above them. Watching, then withdrawing. Eep! Despite this, they decide to take a short break and scrounge around the theater for stuff that’ll be useful to their Dinginsmith back home, who’s busy trying to figure out What Is Up With These Dingins (a clock) that have appeared all over their neighborhood. So they do some rest stuff to recover Stress — such a great small FitD innovation — and scrounge around.

Scrounging takes a couple of them back into the backstage area. They find a greenroom and it is perfectly preserved: mirror, lights, wardrobe, chairs. And in the big mirror they can see actors and extras streaming in, changing outfits, applying makeup. That’s not happening in the greenroom itself, just in the reflection. Huh!

And then the lights flicker out and they’re caught in darkness. And they hear the clicking and scraping of a rotting billy lurching toward them outside.

Rather than jumping to a fight or flight, the Lostfinder talks to the rotting billy. “We’re in your space but we mean you no harm” etc etc. The Sneakthief isn’t interested in talking, and gets ready to fight for his life.

Despite the absolutely desperate odds and limited effect of trying to talk to this rotting garbage monster, the Lostfinder bangs out a crit: double 6es, bringing it to normal effect. IT WORKS, and the rotting billy grates out one word: hungry. And it scampers out, double-time.

They figure they’ve bought themselves a brief grace period at best so they regroup on the stage to continue their search for the tree. As they do, the floodlights suddenly kick on and they’re blinded on stage. Up in the fancy boxes, the rotting billies have gathered to observe them on the stage. And they all start applauding, clacking their weird wire-and-wood hands together. Then they start howling hungry hungry hunnnnngrrryyyy. The PCs boogie out of there at top speed.

Time Is A Flat Circle

As they leave, they can hear the sound of distant explosions. More feel it through the ground and the walls. Sometimes they hear the hint of staticky voices calling out in an unfamiliar cadence. Unfortunately it gets louder as they continue toward the tree. At this point the orphan boy gets real anxious to leave, they never go any further when they hear the bombs, can we leave now please? But what are they gonna do, send a 12yo back to the rotting billies? So they continue.

To figure out what’s up with these explosions and other sounds of battle, the Sneakthief and Ghostfighter zip ahead to scout around. They pass through this disorienting wall of strange gravity and confusing inner-ear stuff and make a resistance roll. They both roll terribly and end up nearly Stressed out just by advancing through it. Kind of feel bad about that as the GM! I had intended/hoped it’d be 1-2 at most, but it’s like 5 and 6. Oh well, let the chips fall. 

They come to a cratered out battlefield and it is filled with soldiers. Half the soldiers are weird and spindly, evocative of the lady from the TCA they had observed several sessions ago who was the handler of that gang they went to war with. Ultra high tech body suits, a big buglike ship crouched in the middle of the crater. On the other side, well equipped and obviously human soldiers taking pot shots at the skinny weirdos. Bright beams from the sky lancing down into the battle. Just raining hell. And none of it looks like anything anyone’s ever seen in The City.

The sneakthief, a former mikefighter pilot and suffering from the Haunted trauma, just goes into a panicky fugue state and is useless. The Ghostfighter watches a bit longer…and the scene ends. It’s suddenly nighttime again. The crater is still a crater but it’s overgrown and otherwise empty. No sign of that battle at all.

Not In Kansas (What Is A “Kansas?”)

They regroup and enter the crater to investigate. The Lostfinder knows they’re in a Lost Place at this point (another fortune roll on Examine, it’s a good “city wise” roll to fall back on for him) and realizes they’re watching a moment from The Bombardment itself. This is powerful stuff for folks like Lostfinders who are obsessed with uncovering The City’s secrets.

The Lostfinder tries to Care his way through to the Sneakthief to break him from his fugue state. I make this an action roll because there is some time pressure here. There’s a second clock ticking down of another group investigating the ruins in search of the tree.

He makes the roll but there are also a couple consequences, and he’s so low on Stress he can’t stop either of them: the B Team clock ticks over (resistable, just Care a little faster!) … and the time loop starts again. They’re caught in the middle of The Bombardment and the cross-fire between humans and whatever the fuck the skinny people are.

They barely escape but they come across a team of TCA provosts way, way out of their jurisdiction, camped in an old parking structure and preparing to leave. And they’re ahead of the alliance.

Lostfinder finds a way ahead and past the provosts, and with one more desperate (!!!) roll they finish out the Find The Tree clock. In this case, again, I feel like having a clock going really helped create an interesting tension between pacing and logistics. They’re running low on Stress but this is also the thing the Lostfinder is best at, so that was a fun gamble to weigh. And it paid off.

The Shifted tree is vast, so much bigger than their tree back in their Corner. Huge, purple, glowing, huge heaving fruits hanging from it. There are people camped all around it, and they also seem to be tinted a little purple. But surely it’s just the glow of the Shift?

Standing in the camp is Eddie, the farmer. He’s being embraced by his dead wife, who appears to be very much alive albeit a bit purple.

This is where everyone’s stomach just drops. WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK.

So To Recap…

So the new situation is this, in brief (haha I’ve already written like 3k words, hope you’re still reading!):

  • The shifted tree re-sprouts living copies of dead people buried with it. “It” includes its branches wherever they may appear. The wife was buried with a branch, and so she appeared.
  • The fruits contain memories of those who are reborn under the shifted tree. The poor orphan girl who wakes up screaming ate one and is caught in the moment of death of someone, they don’t know who. But this is also how Eddie the farmer knew his wife was alive (?) and well (???).
  • They’re now very, very conflicted about whether a shifted tree is actually better than no tree at all. The ghostfighter is committed Green Path and most definitely thinks they need to secure it for his faith. But also they’re thinking about whether to tell the Mire End Tribune about this crazy fuckin’ tree where people come back to life maybe. It would be a powerful bargaining chip as they try to bury another, much worse story the Tribune is about to break with.
  • And apparently “someone else” in the Corner knows about the tree. They don’t know what that means exactly.

So this whole new thing about the time looped ruins, the rotting billies who are maybe/probably some kind of intelligent, and a tree that resurrects you, yeah, BIG CHANGES.

<–Part 4 | Part 6–>

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