The game was Apocalyptus. The setting was London in the late post-apocalyptic Victorian era.
The players all lived in a raised town suspended on giant stilts called New Whitechapel, which was located over London. It was one of the trashier mini-cities in London, and was mostly used for grain storage. The population was small, and the people were unsophisticated and not particularly wealthy.
The surface of London was overrun by mutants known as The Affected, who were invariably evil, malicious, and violent.
At the start of the campaign, the PCs were all working as guards to prevent the Affected climbing up into the city.
However, Colin Aldridge, the mayor of New Whitechapel, had other things in store for them. He was hoping to increase his own political power by making a name for himself, so he decided, rather unwisely, to employ the PCs in going down to the surface of the London and destroying key Affected bases. He wasn't really authorized to hire them for this, but he was hoping that their reputation for doing good would spread faster than the news that they weren't supposed to be down there.
This constitutes the first act of the campaign. At this point, it was just me playing with my siblings and a close friend or two. Important PCs from this period included:
- Romeo Scrabs: A member of the "Steam Demons," a biker gang run by Steam Mages who liked to ride Steam Motorcycles. Romeo's original weapon was a broken bottle. He liked to drink and get tattoos. He didn't like to shave or wear shirts. His catch phrase, "WHO ARE YOU??" was often uttered when he found himself suddenly confronted by Affected. Romeo helped to solve a lot of early problems simply by doing crazy stunts on his bike. Typically because someone had dared him.
- Jim Ross: Jim started off with the goal of starting a cult along with his mysterious friend Count Bennet Leumas. He had mind powers. He was always polite and genial, but had an amoral streak. He loved to fight Affected children, and often went into a sort of frenzy of bloodlust. Eventually, Jim got tired of the cult thing, and was content to spend his free time riding around town on one of those bicycles with the enormous front wheel.
- Skyla Hoogaboom: A dutch girl who fought with four blades in the shape of a windmill. She was the party's tank, and could deal more damage one-on-0ne than most anybody. An early misunderstanding of a feat (epic cleave, or something like that, from some D&D supplement) had her killing most all the bad guys for a while.
The players all liked the game. Almost all of them were very new to role playing games, and were enchanted by the very concept. They invited their friends, who I welcomed with a "more the merrier" attitude. This seemed fun at first, but after a while, there were definitely far too many players. On a big day, we'd have something like sixteen player characters all on one quest. This meant that a lot of characters didn't get to do much, encounters were massive and obscenely slow, and there were almost always a couple of characters who couldn't concentrate, or who didn't really enjoy themselves, but just came for the sake of a friend. Skyla Hoogaboom and Jim Ross of the original party left the game during this period, and soon the party was unrecognizable.
Meanwhile, in game, the party had reached act two. They had established themselves as good fighters, and no longer had to worry about being disbanded if someone higher up than the mayor of New Whitechapel found out about them. They were often called to help out with tasks required by the remaining Trueborn (non-affected) population of London. This act started out with a mysterious event involving the death of Dorian Grey, and the organized sabotage of all London's trains, and culminated in the introduction of the campaign's Big Bad, a mutant called The Nutcracker, with massive jaws and an always-be-prepared combat philosophy. The Nutcracker attempted to capture the PCs and turn them into Affected in his secret catacomb base in Rome, but his untested device ended up waking the dead instead, causing the Crusaders to rise up and crusade against everything living.
Forced to retreat, The Nutcracker permanently hired an underling named Mr. Buttspittle to antagonize the PCs. Mr Buttspittle was a beetle-like creature, who commanded a lot of exotic fighting forces including mutant cowboys, mutant Africans, and mutant Chinese.
This period saw the addition of tons of new PCs. Some of the best of them being the following:
- Alfonzo Fernandez: A Mexican Nukeromancer. Nukeromancers are basically really powerful wizards who risk being mutated if they use too many powerful spells. Alfonzo became sort of the archetypal Nukeromancer, with a great interest in cultic matters, a disregard for his own health and safety, and an anarchist outlook on life. His mind was nearly gone by the end of the campaign, and he was mutated beyond recognition.
- Count Bennet Leumas: Bennet existed earlier in the campaign as an alternate character for the same player who played Romeo Scrabs. He decided he was more interested in Bennet at this point, and Romeo made only a few cameo appearances. Bennet was a Persuasionary, a class with mind powers, and was also a serial killer in his off-hours. He always seemed eerily cheerful, and enjoyed controlling those around them in what seemed like a mental game of cat-and-mouse where he was always the cat.
- Sir Peter Bedford: Bedford was an Anglican (basically a Cleric), with strong ties to the church. In Apocalyptus, Anglicanism is a really inconsistent religion, where no two Anglicans can agree on anything. Bedford believed mostly in sex, and went around barely clad, attempting to woo women. He got tired of this after a while, and picked up an anarchist streak out of nowhere.
As you can see, the prominent characters in act two were a lot darker than those in act one. There were a lot of other characters at this point that just never went anywhere, mostly because they were lost in the crowd.
In act three, the numbers started dying down, and the players who stayed weren't the players who had been there before. Count Bennet and Alfonzo were the only major characters who really carried over from act two, and a few of the background characters from earlier got more of a chance to shine.
The plotline here was that The Nutcracker was forcing all the more powerful Affected in London to unite under him or die. It was looking like the Affected would be more organized than they had ever been, and would be prepared to launch an offensive that Trueborn numbers couldn't equal. New Whitechapel was overtaken while the PCs were away, and The Nutcracker turned it into a base of operations. Colin Aldridge stepped down from his position as mayor, because he didn't trust anyone, and gave the PCs their orders in a more covert manner.
Aldridge's plan was to find allies to fight on the Trueborn side of the coming conflict, so that they would not be overwhelmed by the numbers of the Affected. The PCs traveled far and wide, enlisting the aid of the Lilliputians, Dr. Moreau's beast-men, some Morlocks displaced in time by an unnamed time traveler, a legion of ghosts, the creations of Frankenstein, and some newly-minted clockwork men. Along the way, they were relentlessly pursued by Mr. Buttspittle, who they finally killed in a haunted underground chamber beneath the impact site of one of the nuclear weapons that had contributed to the world's backstory.
Act three culminated in a final conflict with The Nutcracker, who had built a sort of Big-Ben transforming robot with a weapon that could disable the antigravity devices employed by most of the Trueborn cities, causing widespread cataclysm. The players had to find Jules Verne's steam-powered elephant in order to fight it. Things looked bleak, as all the Trueborn flying cities had crashed to the ground, and the Affected seemed poised for victory. But at the darkest hour, the undead Crusaders appeared, having crossed the English Channel, and waged war against Affected and Trueborn alike. The Trueborn were mostly able to hide while the brutish Affected fought them to the death, and thus the city was saved.
Meanwhile, the PCs had a climactic battle with The Nutcracker inside a giant underground Tesla coil. There were cameo appearances here from all the retired PCs, as well as Colin Aldridge himself, who lent a hand when enemy numbers seemed overwhelming. The Nutcracker himself was kind of a pushover, having banked a little too hard on a poison gas that the PCs survived without much trouble.
Important characters in this phase included:
- Chen Law: A Dragoon (fighter) built for devastating hand-to-hand combat. He loved killing, and loved partying. All in all, a sort of typical fighter.
- Harry: A curious Morlock scoundrel (think rogue without the sneak attack, and with some bizarre skill-based abilities). Harry was always getting into trouble, and causing headaches for the rest of the party. He specialized in hiding.
- Glitch: Another scoundrel, specializing in climbing. Really, a very typical rogue type of character. She loved pickpocketing and did so whenever possible.
The movement here was toward less colorful, more combat oriented characters, which was probably induced by the rising threat posed by the villains. I made the mistake of not keeping up-to-date on players' character sheets, so they constantly caught me off guard with abilities that I was not ready for them to have. This is why The Nutcracker, and most of the other bosses were such pushovers. I also had to deal with a huge unbalance in party power. Chen Law attended faithfully, and never tried branching off into an alternate character (which a lot of the others did), meaning that he collected more experience points than anyone else. He was also the only player who really went out of the way to optimize his character, while everybody else had just picked options that looked fun. This meant that in order to challenge him slightly, I had to use enemies that were a deadly threat to everyone else, and required me to level everyone up alongside him, and ban some abilities.
Afterward, I held a short epilogue session, where the characters got to tell what their characters did after the campaign was over.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
- If you've got a high turnover rate of players, don't try to base plot elements on individual PCs. This bit me a bunch of times. If my entire group turns over, it's better to end the campaign fast and start a new one than to try to tie up loose ends that the new players don't even know about.
- Have your players create their characters as a group, and pay careful attention to party roles. At every point during my campaign, I had at least two PCs of the same class with virtually the same builds. Two melee dragoons. Two persuasionaries. Two climbing scoundrels. Two Steam Mages who didn't know what to do with their class. Two Nukeromancers, one loved by all, one ignored by all. Two Anglicans (Actually, two healers can be a good thing.)
- Don't leave the door open to any and all new players at all times. If you always say yes, you'll get too many players, and some of them will have to leave. Murphy's law mandates that the ones who leave will be the ones you liked best.
- If a boss is supposed to be powerful, then don't have him pull punches all the time. Use all of his abilities.
- Always keep careful track of character sheets, or you'll get blindsided.
- Don't try to force the players to play in a style they don't like. I tried to give my third-act players puzzles to solve, and enemies to outwit, but invariably, brute force was employed as a way around the problem.
- On the other hand, if rushing into combat always works, don't expect your players to ever try anything else.
- If the players have very different goals in playing the game, but they all want to keep playing, it may be necessary to appoint one of the most level-headed players as party leader, and allow him to exercise discipline on disobedient PCs. There is nothing more frustrating for a group of roleplayers and tacticians to plan for forty-five minutes, only to see a real-man fighter get bored, and run headlong into combat, ruining all their plans.