[TotalCon 2010] The Unexplained: Spirits Among the Ruins

This, regrettably, is where Saturday unraveled for me. Back when I preregistered, I hadn’t considered the effect of scheduling three investigation-heavy role-playing games in a row. It got rather tedious to go through the steps of investigation three games in a row. Considering the last two adventures had been rather inconclusive, I was subconsciously looking forward to something more concrete and action-oriented. I’ll know better next time I’m planning my convention playing schedule.

I thought Spirits Among the Ruins was going to be my favorite of the weekend, too. The premise centered on a mysterious, possibly pre-Columbian lithic site in New Hampshire. I’ve always had a thing for Stonehenge and other mysterious arrangements of rocks for uncertain purposes. So I loved the idea of an ancient astronomical observatory with its very own set of ghostly presences.

So the FPI team rolls up to the site, breezes past the undergrad researchers quivering in their Keens and goes about their business of checking things out. The sensitive, Maya, perceives dark entities. Other folks, including my UFO-obsessed investigator, wave EMF detectors and find interesting readings within the stone circle, but not outside.

Maya, bright girl that she is, decides this is a good time to open herself as a medium to whatever lurked in the stone circle. And this is where the game took a turn. Channeling spirits is lousy drama, in television and role-playing, but for different reasons. In the context of a game, the GM either seizes the spotlight for an extended period or has a one-on-one conversation with the channeling character. To Brad’s credit, he copped to this immediately in apology, and went with it as best he could to work with the player running Maya. Unfortunately, in conjunction with a mid-afternoon slowdown other people at the table experienced — one, I later learned, was experiencing medical issues — we lost a lot of forward energy.

Things just sort of ambled on from there, even when the GM tried to inject energy and sense of danger with shadow people attacking researchers as they hustled to glean information from the standing stones. The FPI team decided to recommend the landowner leave the structure alone, reasoning that to be the safest course of action, as opposed to obliging spirits of questionable motivation who desired to be set free. Amusingly, the landowner took an almost completely opposite approach, signing a contract with the SyFy channel to produce a reality series about the restoration and exploration of the portal-communication device.

Looking back, I think the adventure needed a more proactive threat, something that pushed the PCs to take action. There was no agency that threatened real change or danger. Yes, there were shadow people, but one of their limitations was their inability to leave the stone circle. They were only a threat so far as the investigators put themselves at risk to continue researching the circle — which we did, it just didn’t feel like an emotionally engaging threat. A really good threat, from a dramatic perspective, is one the characters can’t walk away from — or suffer consequences if they do. In this case, with a fixed location as the scenario’s McGuffin and antagonists so limited in their ability to exert change, I never felt the characters’ lives, values or anything else were ever really under threat — though, now that I write that, I could see some threat to my character’s fervent belief the circle was an ancient landing site for UFOs. A nice, but lost, opportunity there.

The stone observatory was a nice set up, one that caught my imagination in particular, because I’ve always loved stone structures, particularly ones with hidden meanings and uses. I think there needs to be something behind it, or forces pushing the action forward. If the FPI team decides it’s more sensible to leave the circle alone, but the big set piece scene depends on the shadow people escaping, maybe it’s time for a grumpy undergraduate to free them inadvertently. Alternately, add a ticking clock: FPI races to understand and prove why the site should be saved while a developers’ heavy machinery gathers at the roadside.

Convention games are like home games: some hit, some miss and others fall in the middle. For me, unfortunately, this one was mostly miss. Though I can see points where, if I was the GM, I think the adventure could be improved, with more action and choices shifted back to the players.

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One thought on “[TotalCon 2010] The Unexplained: Spirits Among the Ruins

  1. Pingback: [Read 'Em 'Cause You Got 'Em] The Unexplained « Held Action

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