I first started D&D when the rulebook only went up to third level. I spent the 80's playing Top Secret, Twilight 2000 and Weird Al Yankovic, which could be a pretty strange combination at times. Then I found a little blue rulebook with the word Champions in bright red letters, and the world changed.
I'd been collecting comic books for a while and I was astounded at the ability to put my daydreams onto paper and into numbers. Flight! Energy Blast! Power Destruction! It was loads of fun, and part of that fun came from hanging out with people who enjoyed telling a good story.
Over the years I've been in more campaigns than I care to try and count. Most ended after only a few games, a few went on for months and a very few lasted for over a year. Those few endured because of the story we—the GM and the players—collectively wrote, putting together a world in which we adventured, won, lost and forged our own destiny.
I've found that it's not the system, or the players, or how much flavor text the GM writes—it's the collective, interactive story that binds the characters together and keeps the players on the edge of our seats wondering what will happen next, how they can change things and luxuriating in the triumph of making a difference in the world. A good campaign has action, adventure, romance, mystery and victory snatched form the jaws of defeat. It's more than a group of friends enjoying a game—bowling and poker do that—it's a collective storytelling effort that can become much more than what any single person could create.
Shadows Angelus was one such campaign.
We were cops doing a dangerous job that needed to be done, and I based my character on a sergeant I knew—a no-bullshit, get-the-job-done guy who was willing to look the other way when necessary. The rest of the team was off the wall, though: a paladin, a mouthy, trigger-happy convict, a rookie mage and a scientist with his head so far up his books it wasn't even funny. I figured it'd be a fun few games, personalities and/or characters would clash and the campaign would implode.
Then the world changed again.
Ross took the HERO System and made me fear for my character's life. He took larger-than-life anime and gritty realism and blended them with descriptions that made my back itch. His NPCs had motivations I could relate to and personalities I could respect—or loathe. The world was on the one hand realistically believable and eerily possible, and it responded to us. Our actions dictated reactions, and if we wanted to get results we had to be willing to accept the consequences.
First and perhaps most importantly, the game was lethal. The HERO System is designed to simulate comic books in which people die only in extreme circumstances. This game gave us our normal PD (6 in my case) plus 6 points of armor against 3d6 HKA at an OCV of yes-I-hit, all dice on the table with no take-backs or second lives. This was significant to players who were used to expecting their characters to be, while not always victorious, still around for the next game. The emotional investment of character creation was not to be discarded lightly, and here was a GM who would not only take no precautions against character death, but actively presented us with highly lethal situations.
It took a bit to get over my reaction to this, but I now firmly believe it's one of the reasons the campaign was so successful. It's been said you can't live until you feel you're about to die, and the sweetness of mere survival was thrilling in ways that merely capturing a supervillain couldn't touch. Holding death at bay for just one more day became something to enjoy, not just assume, and faltering in the face of the slavering jaws of defeat meant death—not waking up in a deathtrap to a gloating villain—and we knew it. That made every moment, every triumph and success that much more enjoyable, and every loss that much more poignant.
A second major factor was the flavor text. My first experience with horror campaigns was Call of Chuthlu and while the original Lovecraft novels were kinda spooky, the game didn't do much to evoke the creepies. Our characters were doomed, we knew it and the dice just dictated how long it took.
The visuals in Shadows Angelus made my skin crawl. Ross spent time on his flavor text and it showed—he read off paragraph-long descriptions of blood-spattered walls, howls of unknown creatures, figments of unearthly beauty and shards of eerie phantasms. It was, as Galadriel said, "beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night."
Ok, so I'm waxing poetic. But it was good. He pulled pictures off the web showing desolate scenes of ruined cities, hideous monstrosities and disturbing landscapes. More importantly, he used them appropriately. When went on patrol, it wasn't just raining. It was Storming, with the wind whipping sheets of icy rain in great waves across the dark streets, washing the grime of the city into the dark sewers in rushing torrents. The lightning would crack and thunder roll in booming waves that resonated deep within our bodies. Then we chased some gang punk into an ally only to watch him explode in a shower of gore, with a hideous black monstrosity emerging from the steaming corpse, its gaping maw bristling with teeth as the rain washed the blood from its carapace.
See how a standard random encounter can evoke images when described correctly? Now imagine a GM who does this sort of thing all the time. That's Ross.
Keep in mind the lethality of the game—when he talked about blood spattered walls, we knew there was something around with the capability of rending us limb from limb. We weren't all that much tougher than a normal, and there were times when I hesitated to take my battle-hardened veteran and walk down a hallway, because I just didn't know what might be around the corner.
And that made me—not just my character—nervous. It was remarkable.
Now while that's all well and good, it's the little, personal touches that completed the desire for my scalp to crawl away and hide. After a particularly horrific encounter, Ross handed out index cards with our new, zero-point Psych Lims—little role-playing elements that we could integrate into our character to simulate the lingering effects of our close encounter with That Which Should Not Be. Mine was a dislike of flies, and from then on every few adventures there would be insects of one type or another. Ross would mildly add "the flies buzz around the corpse in an almost angry cloud" to a description and look at me, and I'd be reminded of the encounter where I lost an arm. He didn't make a big deal of it and never asked for EGO rolls, but he never let me forget that my character had once been far too close to an otherworldly presence. The big picture was bad enough, but it's the little details that really got under my skin.
A few comments on the NPCs are also in order. While most of the bad guys were reality-rending killing machines, as much as I dislike admitting it those were the easy ones to handle. They wanted to kill us, we objected and the debates often became heated. Often lethal and always horrific to be sure, but it was a straightforward fight. It was the bad guys we really didn't want to defeat that made the campaign stand out.
One villain wanted to save the city by closing the portal through which the demons arrived. So did we. He wanted to save the city and have humans remain the dominant life-form on the planet. Well, we didn't object to that either and it helped that he didn't kill us when we were captured—he wanted the opportunity to show us what he was doing and convince us he was doing the right thing. On the down side he'd slaughtered tens of thousands in the process of breeding an elite army and his backup plan was nuking the city from orbit, but hey! His intentions were all for the best.
And my character didn't really want to stop him. He had already created the army, the plan sounded good and damn if I didn't want to just let him remove the evil from my city. Unfortunately he wasn't too concerned with things like collateral damage or civilian casualties and we had to fight him, but the inter-team argument was highly spirited.
There are three basic conflicts: man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself. All campaigns contain the first—nameless enemies that serve as speed bumps on the road to victory. Good campaigns have the second, in the form of intelligent enemies who introduce themselves before putting a dagger in your back. Only the best campaigns have the third and force players to look within themselves for answers to uncomfortable questions.
Shadows Angelus brought all three together in a well-crafted web of epic proportions. We fought with mindless killing machines intend on devouring all human life. We fought with people who we respected but with whom there was no compromise. And we fought with ourselves over the morality of sacrificing a family in the protection of the entire city. Did the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? We were the people on the spot and we had to make the call. And Ross is the one who put us there.
He forced us into ethical quandaries, value judgments and the morality of fighting for an intangible "greater good." We knew that no matter what we did, someone would say we were wrong and blame us for what happened. Just like real life. It was harsh, uncomfortable and highly aggravating, and one of the best things a GM can do to his players.
And the guy who started all this? The evil mastermind plotting to sacrifice millions of people to demonic hordes? He just wanted his son back. He was willing to do whatever it took to save the child he loved.
Can you really blame him?
I've a daughter and I hesitate to think what I'd do to keep her safe.
We stopped him, but there was no "of course" about it. We stopped him because not stopping him would have been worse. And then we went to look for his son anyway, because it was the right thing to do.
And that's the final element of the campaign that stood out. Actions had consequences. Whatever we did would come back to us, one way or another.
Early in the campaign we traced an organ-stealing operation into a corporate building and encountered a greater demon. It's not really our fault he escaped, but through our actions we humiliated the corporation. Much later in the campaign we were faced with the question of corporate extraterritoriality and those same people came back to remind us of what we'd done. And because we rejected the concept and managed to make it official policy, corporations worldwide abandoned the city and sent the economy into decline for over a decade.
It wasn't something we'd thought about. We were cops and didn't like the idea of somewhere in which our laws didn't apply, but how many lives did we ruin because of our actions? How many working-class families no longer had jobs because the corps thought it was too "risky" to do business in Angelus? How many teens turned to drugs and petty crime in order to escape a lower-middle-class life of soy meals and lowest-common-denominator sitcoms? We may have made it easier to enforce laws across the land, but we certainly didn't make life better.
And when we needed a lead on a drug-running operation, one of the contacts we visited was a Yakuza crime lord. We talked, came to an arrangement and from then on took a slightly softer touch with the Yaks. When disaster struck they were right out in front helping folks get back on their feet—and nobody complained. Then they showed their darker side and we found that by allowing the nose of the camel into the tent, we also had corruption on almost every level of government and an increase in violent crime—with strong legal protection for the criminals.
Were we right to talk to the guy in the first place? We needed help to track down the source of a drug that turned people into demons, but was it worth the cost of increased organized crime?
We don't know. And we'll never know.
And it's precisely that uncertainty in long-term effects that made the campaign such fun.
On a much more personal level, Ross also challenged us to take actions that would directly challenge who we thought we were.
My character was a cop. He'd spent eight years in uniform and believed in the "serve and protect" as though it were written in stone. He'd dedicated his life to upholding the law and spend the past game-year fighting against forces beyond mortal comprehension, at the same time watching warmongering politicians using fear tactics and assassination to take control of the city. The elections were legal but the end result was that a man worthy of standing beside McCarthy and Stalin was put into a position of effectively unlimited authority.
So what did my character do?
He shot the guy. My character became an assassin, betraying his job, his teammates and his oath. It was an incredibly sublime moment, when I realized that the phrase "to serve and protect" didn't include qualifiers such as "only when convenient" or "unless it'd ruin my career." He was driven to protect the city to the best of his ability, at all costs. At any cost.
And it's this one, single act that embodied so much of what I enjoyed about the game.
It was lethal—I was able to kill a significant NPC with a single die roll. It was visceral as Ross wrote up the scene and described the government's reaction. There was lots of conflict, both external—his teammates were completely in the dark about this and their eventual reactions were noteworthy—and internal. His reaction was an acceptance of God's plan, and acknowledging the fact that while he may help build the kingdom of heaven he would never be worthy of entering. I had fun bluebooking that set of personal revelations.
And there was fallout. Lots of it. Partly good, as the next guy in charge was more conservative in his policies, but mostly bad. My character confessed and was entering prison at the end of the campaign, was dishonorably discharged and lost the respect of virtually everyone who knew him. Could we have done it another way? Certainly. But choices were made, events were set in motion and all we could do was deal with what happened next.
Was it worth it?
At the time I thought so. I still think so. We needed things changed so we could fight the demons instead of the government. But it ended a good man's career in disgrace. Of all the ways for my character to end the campaign, being led off in chains wasn't one I had ever envisioned. And while that character went on to become a significant figure in the city's organized crime, I wouldn't change a thing.
Nietzsche said "Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of Man." Shadows Angelus both embodied this concept and exploited it to the fullest, for in our torment we always had the hope of success. Even in the least hopeful situations Ross insured that success was possible, and with sufficient struggle we could emerge victorious. There were prices to paid, and often we had to pay dearly, but if we so chose we could come through it on top.
So we choose, and paid, and we survived.
The campaign? Most definitely worth it.