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

This is it, our grand finale. Thank you for reading!

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.

Final Mission: The City Will Forget You

Final report from The City. Our a|state game is over.

Storytime follows! But the highlights are:

  • We ended on such a downer! Total failure, everyone died fighting the good fight. Somehow appropriate for The City that nothing they did really mattered in the end.
  • This is the first time I ended a campaign before I wanted to. I could have continued with this campaign for a very long damn time. Usually I get bored and restless for the next shiny thing in my nest.
  • It’s actually A Good Thing to end before everyone’s sick of it.
  • There’s a real magic trick to making everything feel planned and inevitable and I can’t decide whether to keep it magical for my players, or explain the trick so they can carry it forward.


It’s been three weeks and we were right at the edge of not really remembering important details of our game. The details have been what keep us going. All that shared lore creation. All those stories.

But the real world has intruded. Summer break is here, and our newest player is also a single dad. His summer’s gonna get real unpredictable. Actually everyone is, with uncoordinated vacation schedules. So we had the Real Talk and agreed that we should be aiming toward the endgame.

Now a|state does have an endgame. That is: figure out what’s driving the Danger Clock and diegetically stop it. There’s nothing mechanical to stopping the Danger Clock. You don’t collect a resource and then call it done.

They had figured out the Danger Clock driver a session or two ago: the evil mega-bureaucracy of the Three Canals Authority wants to sell out Mire End to the Trusts as a testbed for their iffy technologies and products. In this case, General Machinery’s vast thinking machines were on the hunt for the Tree of Life, a Shifted phenomenon wherein dead people buried under its branches came back to life but wrong.

Additionally, I started dropping hints on one of the setting’s Big Secrets: how did The City come to be, anyway? Everyone kind of knows it’s a weird fucked up unnatural place, but everyone’s also so busy surviving that nobody thinks too hard about it. But I had introduced this Shifted time-warp region deep in the ruins of The Bombardment in which they’ve seen glimpses and hints of what The City was like before things got weird. There were these spindly alien humanoids at war with the folks of that old city. And at least one of those spindly aliens was trying to pass itself off as a human working for TCA in brokering this deal to sell off Mire End to General Machinery.

They Call That Foreshadowing

Last session was downtime, with some big consequential results emerging from the game’s Trouble Engine procedure. The Danger Clock had ticked over and I had the option to make a major change to the setting the next time the clock ticked over. In this case, I told them the TCA would complete their takeover next time the DC ticked over. They’re already on war footing, after suicide-bombing the Mire End leadership two sessions ago. The whole place is fucking chaos. In the power vacuum, the surviving elements of their local enforcement body, The Blackcoats, have stepped in with no plan beyond enforcing the peace and seeking justice. They’re formally At War with the alliance of troublemakers.

When you’re At War, you only get one downtime action. This is the primary motivator for wanting to end a war, other than the fictional positioning that they’re gonna make life ambiently miserable for the PCs at every opportunity. So at the end of last downtime, that’s the plan: end the War, or at least back down relations to “I fucking hate you” and not “we will expend every resource to hunt you down.” They think a bit about their approach ahead of time and decide on Broker.

So that’s what I prep! They’re gonna figure out what’s really at play, figure out a sit-down, offer something, and get the Blackcoats to back the fuck off. I have some fun twists and turns in mind, again thanks to the excellent approach templates in the book. (My current favorite killer app of a|state. I thought it was the Trouble Engine but the templates are right up there.)

This Is How You Lose A Time War

Per FitD mission phase best practices, they set about gathering information on just how to broker this peace. It’s tough, right? They’re at war with you. So everything they do is desperate. But I offer some ideas, and they have their own ideas, and I interleave all that into some fun information-gathering they can actually accomplish.

The ghostfighter meets with one of the last surviving leaders of the Unknowns, the terrorist group that’s been maintaining Mire End’s independence against TCA by aggravating the TCA. They’re the ones who built the suicide vest that took out the disloyal motherfuckers who were ready to sell out their community. She learns that the Blackcoat commander’s 2iC is himself an Unknown. Real cozy and close-up. They also learn that it’s temporarily helpful that the Blackcoats’ attention on taking down the PCs’ alliance is helpful for taking the heat off the Unknowns. They’re already planning their next strike against the TCA, cheers for that.

Next, our newest troublemaker uses that information. He’s a General Machinery employee but he’s been radicalized by the bombing and results. So he uses his GM cover, presents himself as a high-end operative, and walks right into the Blackcoats’ HQ to talk with the 2iC. Their plant tells him that the sole survivor of the explosion, the former chair of the Mire End committee, has survived and is romantically involved with the Blackcoats’ commander. He’s driving her toward taking the alliance off the board because the third troublemaker, the Lostfinder, is the only challenger to his bid to take over again.

That selfsame lostfinder sneaks in to talk with his friend NPC, who runs a network of street-level informants. He had run it for Mire End but since they’re dead he’s basically inherited the little spies. Lostfinder and spymaster have a chat; spymaster’s husband had been the former leader of the Unknowns and had built the suicide vest. And had died in the resulting explosion. All according to plan, is the implication. The player who made that amazing, heartbreaking play is mildly discomfited by the sense that I, via the NPC, had somehow engineered that. (It’s all smoke and mirrors but when you’re deep in the magic circle your suspension of disbelief is fully engaged. He buys it hard. It’s beautiful.)

He’s also manipulated his roll such that it was both desperate and extreme reward. Well…extreme rewards deserve recognition, yeah? So the spymaster provides the Unknowns’ deepest secret: a fruit from the Tree of Life.

You Can Live Forever(ish)

Longtime readers will remember these fruits contain the final memories of those buried under the Tree’s branches. Spymaster claims this fruit contains the final memories of the woman who was murdered way back in session 1. The event that kicks off the gang war. The initiating moment of everything. He explains that it was important the contents of that memory be kept secret because it was more important to the Unknowns that this other gang get taken out by the troublemakers than justice be sought for this woman’s murder. The alliance got played specifically to start a war.

So the lostfinder eats the fruit. This is one of a bunch that the corner’s orphans brought back and had eaten themselves. They’ve been telling stories of dreaming about the man who killed Sativa. Everyone assumes it’s the thug from the old gang. It’s not that thug.

It’s the sole survivor of the bombing. The guy trying to take out the troublemakers. In murdering Sativa, the memory reveals that she clawed him across the face. He bled purple and a moment later healed himself. He’s been a sprout from this evil fuckin’ Tree since (before) episode 1!

All this information gathering makes them change their mind about their approach. Now it’s not about brokering a deal with the Blackcoats. It’s about defeating Cecil, the Tree-resurrected politico who murdered Sativa and is now actively trying to put the Tree in the hands of General Machinery.

The players speculate that maybe what they really need to do is take out this fucking Tree.

And we’re off to the races.

Needs Must When The Devil Drives

Taking out the Tree is an easy sell for stopping the Danger Clock. It’s an open-ended driver, right? If we wanted to keep playing, the TCA could keep coming up with potential customers to whom they can still try and sell out Mire End. Or we can keep it real specific, make it about General Machinery’s quest for this Shifted Tree. And once it’s gone, GM won’t care about this place any more. Too many fish to fry.

There’s a very quick scramble to work out just how to assault that Tree so it’s good and dead. They work out a temporary alliance with the Third Church of God the Architect, the fascist assholes who had burned down their local animist cult’s (not shifted, totally normal) tree a couple sessions ago. The ghostfinder is a member of the Green Path and presents herself as a schism in their faith — after the old tree burned, the Green Path moved its faith practices to the Tree of Life. Her old faith is now her enemy. And the GM employee is himself a Third Church worshiper, for real, no irony. So between the two of them, they gather some tree-burning thugs and head into the Shifted ruins.

Other than coming back across the time warp bubble — the shortcut to the Tree that everyone else carefully avoids — everything proceeds apace. They make fast time through the ruins. The Blackcoats are in pursuit. They have to get past Green Path members protecting the pathway (but not at the time warp bubble!). Eventually they’re at the tree, everyone’s down to their last couple Stress, and they’re facing an 8-clock to finally destroy the fuckin’ thing.

One PC stresses out and is out of the scene, but gets 3 of those 8 ticks out of the way. Another PC stresses out and is out of the scene, and gets 3 more of those 8 ticks. Two ticks left! It’s all down to the third PC, also down to one stress.

He clearly describes Wrecking. And he has no Wreck, so he’s rolling 2 taking the worst. Pushes, which breaks his Stress, but gets him to a single die. The whole thing comes down to a one-die roll. (Actually escaping with their lives is a tomorrow problem.)

The GM kid … rolls a 2. And stresses out. And everything falls apart.

The game is over. The ghostfighter is shot in the back as she tries to throw a Molotov at the tree; her last memory is her old Green Path faith leader throwing a shovelful of dirt over her face — and her first new memory is being pulled out of the Tree, reborn, by the suicide bomber (who was buried under the tree and was himself reborn). The lostfinder is taken prisoner by the Blackcoats and brought back to Cecil, denied the gift of eternal life. The GM kid is just shot in the face and ignored, a meaningless nobody.

End Of Game Takeaways

The secret to making everything feel planned, inevitable and necessary comes down to a few things:

  • Knowing where the actual loose threads are
  • Keeping lots of options open at all times to tie off those threads in many different ways
  • Using a system that allows for a lot of narrative discretion in terms of scope and focus. FitD, to its credit, is probably best in class due to the nature of Clocks. Burning Wheel is a close second due to the negotiated intent/action transaction.

There were many, many loose threads in our game: the nature of the City’s origins, who their real enemy is, what GM actually wanted, what TCA actually wanted. Those are all quantum-state meta-facts. I can make allusions and hints at many answers, and choose my moment as to when I actually nail down an answer. They’re not “uncovering” the “secrets” to my “mystery.” But I’m definitely 100% selling them on the idea that these things are all planned and real, somehow. It does mean having a good memory and being able to sense when I’m getting close to contradicting myself. It’s the same skill you need if you’re going to be a compulsive liar. That’s the logical skill.

Selling them that they’re closing in on something real, that’s theatrics. It’s all magic circle stuff. I have no investment in my answers, but I’m profoundly invested in interesting answers. This is all old stuff, reincorporating players’ ideas and all that. I think my trick, if it even is a trick, is in the preload. Keeping stuff unanswered for as long as possible and remembering what still needs to be answered.There’s not a checklist method for this, unfortunately. I’m not sure I can proceduralize it. There’s a lot of intuition involved. Lots of reading the players for what they’re actually interested in. An excellent memory for useful loose threads I might pull on later.

<–Part 8 | <–All the way to the beginning

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