Synopsis: High school students find themselves catapulted through dimensional barriers into a number of fantastic scenarios.
The PCs are members of a high-school’s gaming club. While gamer interests can be eclectic, they should be more or less normal with zero to minimal combat or survival skills. As always, be cautious about letting players play themselves.
Depending on the system you’re using, you may wish to offer the players a “Gamer” or “Genre Awareness” skill. This skill might give them (potentially erroneous) information about what their characters know about the game scenarios and settings they encounter. Let players roll against the skill to use game-related info they might know (but their characters might not) or to give them potentially misleading hints. (See Genre Awareness below)
In Act I, the players are drawn from their normal mundane lives into a world of danger and excitement.
It’s a new school year, and the gamers have been granted a group charter with the school. They’ll be given a faculty adviser and a room to play in after classes, and all they have to do is clear out a storage room to meet in.
The Inciting Incident
While cleaning, one of the characters discovers an old D20 made out of soapstone. While picking it up or showing it to someone else it gets rolled, dropped, etc. The die bounces thunderously, time seems to slow down, and then everything goes black.
The die is a magical artifact, a relic created by the hopes, dreams, and imaginations of a group of gamers who used to play here a decade ago. Troubled kids with rough home lives, the gamers managed to escape the real world for an imaginary reality where they themselves became gods. The echoes of the games they played as part of this great ritual exist as pseudo-realities, worlds the current player find themselves drawn into.
The meat of the campaign takes the form of published role-playing scenarios that the players have found themselves drawn into. It isn’t as straightforward as that, but here’s the basic pattern.
The players find themselves in a new world, as different from the one they’ve just left as possible. They arrive with nothing but what they were wearing and carrying at the point of transfer. If players try to exploit this, figure out some fair weight or encumbrance limit. Want to play on hard mode? Every new world they show up naked.
Typically the players will have a few months to prepare before finding the scenario’s adventure hook. Or rather, they have to survive and get by in a new world in which they have no resources, contacts, or footing. As the players accumulate actual survival skills, this will become easier, but for the most part this period will be spent learning about the world.
After they have gotten slightly settled, to the point of having basic needs covered, you can compress most of this into downtime. Keep track of how old the player are. Inform them when they age.
After a few months, when they have a good sense of the world they’re in, have them encounter the RPG scenario’s hooks. Let them go through the adventure as best they can… and to be honest, ordinary high-school kids won’t do so well in even first-level adventures, but some games are geared towards normal folks.
You have a few options for dealing with player losses:
- Dead is dead. If they die, they’re out of the game. Make up a new character (see below).
- Dead is gone. If they die, they’re out of the current scenario. They go to the safehouse. (see below).
- Dues ex Machina. If the player is in serious danger, they jump to the safehouse, before anyone dies. (see below)
If the players ignore the plot hook, or if they abandon an adventure, they jump to the safehouse. If they win, let them enjoy their victory for a few days, but jumping to the safehouse is inevitable.
Between adventures, the players find themselves in The Safehouse, a small and safe reality where they can rest and recuperate. It takes the form of a comfortable and quiet place that fulfills their basic needs… an island beachhouse, a furnished apartment in an empty city, a spaceship floating in the void. It has enough food and water for a few days of relaxation, and the magic d20, maybe a few entertainment options like boardgames or VHS tapes.
There’s nowhere else to go — the spaceship never reaches anywhere, swimming away from the island doesn’t find any other land, the windows and door of the apartment are painted on — and food will eventually run out. Eventually, they’ll have to roll the die or starve to death.
If you’re feeling creative, make the nature of the safehouse match the next scenario you have planned.
Another thing to decide: Are the players healed of injuries upon returning to the safehouse? If not, give them medical supplies too.
If you’re planning on killing players off, then you should have some mechanic for bringing in new PCs. There are three basic options:
- The player “promotes” an NPC from the current scenario of around equivalent capabilities into a PC. He travels with the PCs when they jump next.
- The player creates a new PC appropriate to the next setting, and joins the PCs when they appear.
- The new PC is a human from earth, either a club member who didn’t appear right away or someone who found a die elsewhere. If the former, decide whether they’ve been trapped in some other world alone this whole time, or if they just “jumped” to the next world without experiencing the time they “missed.”
Eventually the PCs will start to put the pieces together and figure out what exactly is going on and how to get home. Seed act two with clues as to the nature of the gamer-gods behind all this. Maybe glimpses of gargantuan figures around a table, or see strange scenes from the broken lives that led them to create this reality.
Give them clues to follow up on, let them start seeing anachronistic “cracks” in the different scenarios.
If and how they follow up on these breadcrumbs is up to the players. React to them. Let them get the attention of these gods by trying to “break” the scenarios, then let them plead their cases.
Subverting Genre Awareness
One important thing to capture the right feeling for this game is to make the game settings slightly different from what the players are expecting. Try and make them more “real” in ways that belie typical RPG tropes. Downplay any elements added by the designers for playability and try to envision what these worlds would be like if they were real.
For whatever value of real you’re interested in. Make adventuring unpleasant. Focus on the unpleasant details these games often skim over.
Or don’t. It’s your game.
I ain’t no nerd! The players are not themselves playing gamers. Instead they’re playing kids on detention forced to clean out the building over a weekend. The game otherwise continues as normal, but the characters won’t necessarily have the same level of genre awareness. They might be more capable, or at least, more trouble-prone.
We have to find the kids! The players are the parents of children who have gone missing, police officers or detectives investigating the disappearance, and school faculty showing them the room that went missing. This gives us a more capable group of characters, with a stronger goal than simply finding their way home again.
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