Running Broken Rooms

Since October of 2014, I have been exploring Broken Rooms in a PBeM format. The game started out with a traditional approach of being run through e-mail, but shifted after a month to being run in a Facebook group. Getting to run this game took longer than I had hoped, and as a play-by-post, this exploration has what could kindly be referred to as a glacial pace, but it is finally time for a look under the hood at how the game plays.

Unfamiliar with Greymalkin’s compelling game, Broken Rooms?

Check their website for insights

Campaign Premise and Implementation: Transgressions

The basic premise of the campaign was the belief among the characters that what has come apart might in time be drawn together, coupled with the hope that what has been lost might be found. The initial players each purchased the book, either for their own edification, or to serve their current play style, so start-up discussions were not the sort of chore it can be for a PBeM. It also allowed me to propose a start unlike what I might do if the group were sharing a single book around a table.

View the teaser trailer here

Transgressions was set up to reflect the struggles of a small group of characters from the variation of Earth known as Vanished. The fundamental background of the game is that our world has fragmented into 13 variations, with a fraction of humanity able to travel between points of access between them, the game’s titular Broken Rooms. In addition to this not inconsiderable ability, the characters are able to externalize core aspects of their personalities in the form of themed, open-ended psychic powers.

The game’s authors recommend starting play for the first time on Earth 1, our world. This is good advice which I would normally have followed, but for a PBeM I felt that the pace indicated a different approach. To balance the learning curve the group would need before travel with the need for starting off in a curious and challenging location, I settled on Vanished. This variation of Earth spins on unburdened by most of its human population. All together, all at once, humanity vanished from existence, leaving only those few who would come to be called Nearsiders; those who can travel between the variations. This balancing act was called for mainly by the format of play. Starting out with entirely ignorant characters in an emulation of our own world before making it to another variation would take months to complete compared to an hour or so around a table.

We began the game with four players.  We dropped one and gained one by the end of the first narrative break for XP. The group of characters consisted of 5 people. One of these was mauled horribly, one met a grisly end, and one charged off through a Broken Room accidentally leaving the others behind. Despite the ‘stately’ pace, the campaign has not been without its dangers and tensions.

As we prepare to continue the game, one player is thinking up a replacement character, the departed character’s player has transitioned to NPC status, the group is mourning the horrible and sudden loss of the initial NPC, and new characters are about to join.

Many choices lie ahead of them, some urgent, some far-reaching, none trivial.

I like that in a game.

Characters: Intangibles and Tangibles

Who are you?

Characters in this game are built first as a concept encapsulating who they were as a person and as a professional prior to the starting point of the game. Looking back over the road travelled, before embarking down the road untravelled is a hallmark of games from Greymalkin Designs. Players are asked to consider what forces have been propelling the character to this point and distill these down into useful hooks for play. Taking this a step further, the game then links those ideas with action options. Who you are is tied inextricably to what you wish to accomplish or have accomplished, and as a result, what you will find yourself doing in the game.

The first steps in this process are to establish a basic concept and then flesh it out into a multi-dimensional persona through considering significant milestones in the character’s past and then working out what is referred to in Greymalkin games as MPHA: motivation, personality, history, and appearance. These are intangibles which despite their lack of a mechanical foundation, provide the impetus for characterization and give the group traction in moving toward understanding who and what you are playing.

One aspect of the system which serves to straddle the divide between these intangible but essential aspects of character and the tangible and mechanically represented aspects of character is referred to as a Quality. Qualities are player-defined dimensions to the character which put the MPHA in sharp focus for others in the group, and provide a small boost to actions relevant to them in the game in the form of bonus dice.

Traits

Tangible Character Traits are represented as Attributes, Skills, Meridians, and Qualities. Nearsider characters essentially have four attributes, while normal humans have three. The three are Body, Mind, and Soul. The fourth for Nearsiders is Depth. Qualities and Distance round the mechanical representation of character out and help the player refine and personalize their creation.

Attributes

The first three attributes define the base number of dice rolled for skills, and the fourth determines the dice rolled for Meridians, the manifestation of Nearsider powers in the worlds they visit. Body, Mind, and Soul also serve as the means to track strains, stresses, and injuries sustained during the travels and travails of the characters. Each of the three core attributes serves as an indicator of ever more serious Thresholds which are the mile markers of debilitation and damage taken physically, emotionally, or mentally; debilitation which has a serious and experience-shaping effect on the character. Whether it be the shock of watching your friend get mauled by a bear, or the injury of the mauling itself, the game has the means to make scenes carry a demonstrable impact on their participants. More than this, it allows the group to focus on how these impacts and scars are dealt with. Healing physically, mentally, and emotionally is not a trivial affair as written, but as this is an integral part of gameplay, the means to do so are readily accessible to the characters. The game is hard on PCs, but it is an exploration of character, not an exercise in frustration for the player.

Skills

Skills are organized into 19 general categories with related concentrations, and are ranked according to familiarity and professional training. This ranking determines the target number required for successful use. Skills are chosen at character creation to define the character’s professional training and experience, with additional points spent in appropriate Concentrations within these Skills to refine the path they have travelled so far. Raising a Skill affects all the Concentrations within it. After character generation, only Concentrations can be raised through experience, so the general categories of Skills still leave a lot of room for variation between characters and for areas to explore in repeated plays of the game. A sidebar notes pointedly that unlike a large number of systems, Momentum is about resolving actions. What that means is that hobbies, interests, trivia, etc are not really represented in the list of Skills and points do not have to be scattered about to emulate that aspect of life. These elements of ‘skill and knowledge’ (Cross-stitch hobbyist for example) can be made a part of the character MPHA description and embodied as a part of the portrayal of the character in the emerging narrative. Things of greater weight to the character and which define a focal point of their outlook, like an encyclopedic knowledge of Coke history and paraphernalia, can be better expressed as a Quality.

The Momentum System

The system gets its name, Momentum, from the repeated conceit of travel called for throughout the setting. Nearsiders are compelled perhaps to travel and accomplish things during this period of Divergence. What gives them the capacity to do this is the concept of how their travel and activity is translated into game terms.  In the system, this is modelled by earning points of Momentum for each pair of dice rolled which total 13. The game uses D12s, and generally speaking, at least a pair will be rolled whenever a test is needed. Target numbers, excluding modifiers, are generated from the Skill level the character has, and rove from 11 for Inferior skill through 7 for Professional Training and ending up at 4 for World Class ability, stopping at all the points in between in growing bands of familiarity. Qualities, gear, and situational modifiers can add dice to an action pool. Dice Pools for actions have an attribute as their base (Body, Mind, Soul, or Depth). Momentum can be spent to aid the Nearsider in what they seek to accomplish, by adding 2 dice to their pool (before or after) further opening them up to the ability to accrue more Momentum. An object in motion…

So…you’re a Nearsider? 

A Nearsider presents specific abilities tied to the core of their personality. These abilities are referred to as Meridians and they grow in availability and potency the more active and well-travelled a Nearsider is. In other words, the greater the Distance trait is, the greater their capacity to build Momentum and the greater their Depth attribute. Depth is used as the pool for Meridian use, and serves as the rate at which Momentum can be spent on an action. Like any action, use of a Meridian can benefit from the expenditure of Momentum to boost the Depth pool, and can likewise generate more of it. There are 13 Meridians, each presented as a specific concept loosely bound by “can and cannot’ guideposts for free-form usage in play. Meridians are concepts like Opening, Breaking, Mending, or Reading which govern a broad, but surprisingly not vague set of abilities for Nearsiders which can work in harmony with or in direct opposition to the powers of their peers. Breaking and Mending, for example are in opposition to each other in purpose, and those Nearsiders who possess them will find that the core aspects of their personalities may be equally in opposition.

Meridians are further defined by the concept of Depth which is a measure of experience with other Variations the Nearsider has gained in their travels. Travel, after all, expands your point of view. The greater the Depth a Nearsider has, the greater their capacity (more dice) to call upon their Meridians, and therefore, the greater the rate at which they will use and generate Momentum. The amount of Momentum a Nearsider may build and hold onto at one time is limited by Distance, and will actually bleed off slowly if they sit at home and do nothing. One of many interesting quirks of the system is that the player not only has the narrative freedom to determine what powers do within a clear framework of limitations and explanations, but they can manage the result as well. While successes rolled will determine a basic limit on how effective a given power might be in a specific scene, the player can opt to channel Momentum to obtain additional dice (and therefore a chance for more successes). More interestingly, each success rolled must be activated by spending a point of Momentum. This allows the player to rein their usage of powers to specific levels of capability; calling for transferring just enough Momentum to set the right things in the right motion – a sort of conservation of momentum, if you will.

Distance is the system’s representation of how much experience travelling the Nearsider has, and so governs the development Depth, of awakening special abilities beyond their Meridians, as well as their capacity to build Momentum. As Distance grows the Nearsider moves further from their humanity and finds themselves able to do many unusual things at greater and greater proficiency, further adding to their peculiarity from the normal human perspective and their own sense of ‘not being able to go home again.’

So…where are you headed? (Brief Recap)

As a very brief recap, our campaign began with the need to move from one safe location to another. On Earth’s second Variation, known as Vanished, not only did all the normal humans disappear, the remaining fauna turns feral in their presence and the flora seems intent on covering up and pulling down all trace that they ever existed. Groups cannot remain in one place for long, nor can groups grow to a size greater than 13 without triggering a punitive response from…pretty much everything. As a result, I proposed a nomadic culture of small bands of survivors, each with useful, but perhaps not survival-oriented skills, moving from one safe location to another, seasonally. This was to be facilitated by a group calling itself Renew, made up of hardcore survivors who have taken it on themselves to ensure humanity survives here.

Our campaign opened with a note that a beloved and wilderness-capable member of the group had recently been killed, and that a team of guides from Renew were overdue. In short order they learned that a band of people had slain the Renew team, and that there were packs of hungry wolves in the area that were making short work of the remains. It was time to move before they were overrun in this location by one threat or the other. Without the added protection of the Renew guides, the trek overland to the next spot was going to be incredibly dangerous, and there was concern that the band of killers would not only provoke the animals but may cut them off from the nearest Broken Room. Under stress and duress the group decided to head to the Broken Room first. If things were too heavy, they would use it to escape this Variation for a while…. Of course, that was problem number 1. Their cook and Opener, was deathly afraid of the Variation which that Room leads to.

Our cast of characters at first included Brother Robert, a widower turned Franciscan monk developing the Mending Meridian; Kiara, a former veterinarian developing herself as a Finder; Gus, a rugged handyman also developing in that direction; Mia, an often strident and impetuous lady moving forward with the Changing Meridian; and Jesse, an NPC cook and former gigolo with the Opening Meridian. Lightly armed, and eclectically outfitted, the group left their home of the past few months and began making their way into town, and toward a Broken Room that no one had ever claimed, for reasons which had traumatized Jesse permanently.

Our first encounter was on the way there, when a bear, confused and irritable from a tranquilizer dart of some sort, crossed their path and attacked as all animals are wont to do on Earth2. They managed to wound it and drive it off through volume of fire more than accuracy, but not before it knocked Kiara to the ground and raked her severely with its claws. It was her tenacity and training which enabled her to fire the shot which ultimately broke the beast’s aggression into fear, driving it off. However, without better medical care, she may not recover.

Watch a video recap of this part of the campaign here

This encounter drove a wedge further into the group. Jesse had fled the bear while the others tried to help Kiara. Before they could deal with him properly and get Kiara settled, they found themselves in a position to surveil the suspected enemy group. Not taking pains to cover their noise or movements, this group had lit fires smoking, and were using some vehicles they had managed to repair and get going. While attempting to close in and observe from one of a myriad abandoned and crumbling buildings, our characters found themselves caught up in a massive assault of wolves and carrion birds like crows and particularly ravens on the town. Not realizing until later that the opposition may have been so foolish as to have a group larger than 13, or that by unlucky coincidence the combined numbers of all the people in the area may have driven the number too high, our group found themselves at the mercy of flocks of ravens and running for cover before the wolves could find them in the streets. Unable to find reliable shelter in time, Jesse redeemed himself somewhat by repaying his friends with his life. Gus and Mia had managed to find a moldering bank, and led everyone to it. Jesse took it on himself to attempt to open the sealed vault so they could hide inside – or so they thought. Instead, he linked the vault door with a door in a partially collapsed kitchen overlooking the troublesome Broken Room. They rushed through to relative safety as the wolves began crashing into the bank. Before Jesse could follow them through his portal, the wolves were on him. Only his blood made it through.

Reeling from the loss, the group had time to figure out that the opposing group had had an Opener as well, and he had tried to accelerate the cycling of the Broken Room. Lying in a pool of his own spilt life in the odd, three-way intersection which marked this particular Room while wolves worried at his limp limbs, he would never know that he had succeeded.  As the opposing group ran out of ammunition and their spirits broke, the massacre ramped up into something much worse until… the Room cycled. The animals, disliking the nature of the effect, fled as it built and as the red traffic lights over the intersection inexplicably began to blink their warning message, leaving the bleeding carcasses of their victims behind.  Mia, thinking the rest were right behind her, broke into a run to reach the Room and vanished as it cycled. No one else was following. This brutal series of events ended what we are calling the first session.

During that session the player for Kiara had to excuse himself from play. She was taken on as an NPC but her character background and aspects of her MPH were altered to establish that break.

To start up the next ‘session’ experience points were allocated for character advancement (again because of the glacial pace of a PBeM), and two new characters were added. Mia’s player decided to start a new character, and a new player joined to replace Kiara’s. Thanks to the established idea that Renew had guides out to help survivors, and their main team in the region had failed to report in, this was an easy thing to bring about.

The second session is still under way. Robert and Gus recognized that Kiara was in dire straights and Robert did his best to Mend her. He had tried and failed earlier, but with her exertions, her wounds had opened further and bleeding had increased. This time, he could focus, and this time he found something that he could envision and deal with, mending the torn flesh cleanly. He knew it was not enough, but it was much better than before. [Kiara would have died within hours had he not acted here, and thanks to him, her wounds have stabilized and she has a fighting chance to recover over the coming weeks.]

New characters Rhonda, a shy but observant Reader; and Stephen, a troubled man developing as an Opener and wrestling with compulsions to open everything from greeting cards to bottle caps, joined up with the others as they left the ramshackle kitchen to find Mia. Recognizing the poor condition Kiara was still in, they decided to vacate this neighborhood for now, forget about the bodies and vehicles the animals had left behind, and seek out the remains of a pharmacy or doctor’s office. They knew it would be picked nearly clean, but action was better than inaction.

Finding a small, old-timey, independent pharmacy, balanced between a convenience store, a camping supply shop, and a prescription counter, the characters scavenged for remnants of instant food (scoring Pop Tarts, and travel packs of dry cereal), and proper bandages and medicine for Kiara. With her guidance, they got most of what they needed from the back of the pharmacy. While Robert and she prepared doses and tried to ascertain if another Broken Room were nearby that might take them to a less-dangerous environment, the rest descended into the shop’s less-damaged basement. The upstairs was wrecked, picked over, overrun by saplings and vines, and generally unsafe. The basement, however, appeared sound.

It was not…

Stephen, as an Opener, knew almost right away that a Broken Room lay nearly dormant down in the dry darkness of the concrete hole, but he was not prepared for the chain, for the dried blood, for the blood smear scrawl of ‘Freedom!’ on the wall above a tiny, grim drain…  It was not a storage basement, it was a torture chamber where someone had kept prisoners were no one would ever hear or find them.

How had they escaped? Did they vanish with everyone else during the Divergence? Did they escape afterward…as their First Fall to another Variation…? After weathering so much personal horror over the last few hours, the group had been grinding itself apart. Now, in the face of this unfathomable and unpardonable horror, they drew together.

Working together, Gus, Stephen, and Rhonda cleaned away the stains, wiped clean the scrawls, and broke the chain. In a sense, this small act of repair stood for the larger act they might never achieve.

When it was time for Kiara to be brought down into what now seemed like a lemon-scented hideout, completely oblivious to the horror the others had wiped away, the pressure and sadness in Stephen had been building for quite some time. Reading him, Rhonda warned the others that he might try to open the Room early and send them all through, just because the room was closed, just because of the horrors they could all still see when they closed their eyes.

With Kiara seated on an inflatable air mattress, hands cradled protectively around her belly, she and Robert helped dissuade Stephen from this act. The Room, they revealed, at least as far as they could tell, would take them downward through the Variations to a very cruel place where no sane Nearsider would go. Rhonda would have none of going there. Kiara clutched her belly all the tighter, and finally let the tears of horror and outrage flow. It was obvious she needed rest and care, not more horror.

And with that, we catch up to the current flow of events in the game, Robert has changed the subject by raising the point of Jesse’s body and his desire to bury their friend. That means a trip back to the bank, ostensibly another stronghold for them to take shelter in tonight, but one no more pleasant than this…

Conclusion: Running Broken Rooms with Momentum

Despite technical setbacks, schedule changes, personal issues, and the nature of PBeM, our campaign of Broken Rooms is still marching on. The concept can be said to strongly appeal to each of us, and better yet can be easily transmitted back and forth in play to slowly establish the atmosphere and direction we want from it. Skill uses for actions are a simple matter to assess and implement, as are the more esoteric elements such as the use of Meridians. Remembering to check for pairings in the dice pools which total 13 (1 pairing per die) is perhaps the hardest part. For a newcomer to setting difficulties for rolls, or newcomers to dice pools, there will be an additional learning curve ably mapped out by the text and its clear examples. Skill use is handled nicely with the Familiarity rating giving the target number directly, combat likewise spells out clear cut target numbers. Meridian use is up to interpretation based on a narrow range of examples, but I am finding that those examples tend to be the things which come up first and most often in a game. In other words, with the caveats of having both confidence and fun in mind, the examples presented should be adequate to set you on your way.

At this stage of our game, I am enjoying what Broken Rooms has to offer both in terms of its concept and setting, and in terms of its system. Momentum has the sort of narrative power and flexibility that lets you bring a very broad palette of characters to life quickly and with a minimum of effort, while at the same time allowing the sort of detail, challenge, and system interaction which can similarly bring its 13 cruel worlds to life. It’s easy to use, easy to learn, and offers depth that will keep it engaging for the long run. The story we are telling is a grim one, teetering on the edge between prudence and imprudence. With a shift to a different variation the characters will bring their past and personality with them, but the road they travel may become one of heroic action, or gut-churning horror. Their trajectory is not fixed, but their movement through time and space is building toward greater and greater impact with each step.

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  1. […] last move I made in a game was actually for the compelling Broken Rooms RPG by Greymalkin Designs. We are playing this as a play-by-facebook-group game, and while it is […]



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