Sunday, February 9, 2014

Shadowrun: Sink the Gustloff

Five people arrive at Gotenhafen on January 30th 1945: two SS men (one of them a British agent), a Jew who managed to escape from a death march, a Red Army deserter and a Polish resistance fighter.. The Red Army is only kilometers away and people swarm into town because it's the only way out. There are four ships in the harbour and one of them will leave for Kiel and hopefully safety later that day, the Wilhelm Gustloff. All five people need to get on board as well. The Jew and the Russian just want to get out, the other three are concerned with a weapon the Gustloff will transport. The loyal SS man has orders to protect it at all costs, the other two want it destroyed.

One way or another, they get on board. All of them see a SS doctor, accompanied by a group of children, wearing the out-dated but still fear-inspiring black uniform. In fact, the man inspires a bit more than fear in them - it's all they can do not to panic when he approaches. Adam Richter, the German traitor, sweats his way through a short conversation with the doctor, but is let off the hook. They are the only ones who react that way and this gives them something to talk about, with the exception of von Falkenberg who goes to inspect the weapon hidden at the ship's gym and find it's a Reichsflugscheibe. He suddenly remembers that he knows a lot about it, whereever those memories come from. A little later he has another flashback and hears voices of his friends - he remembers that it's 2071 and he's living at the Rat's Nest. When the flash back is over, he is once more convinced that he's Johan von Falkenberg, but he has doubts.

Meanwhile, the others have decided to investigate the ship further and have split up. The ship suddenly shudders with two huge explosions - the Gustloff has been hit by torpedoes. They converge again on the point they have first met just to be pounced on by the SS doctor who herds them into the gym - they are too afraid to resist. In there, the doctor tries to make von Falkenberg fly the Flugscheibe, to save himself and the children who are still following the doctor around - but von Falkenberg realises that he would have to sacrifice the other four and he has this nagging feeling that he knows them. In the end, everyone attacks the doctor all at once and he jumps von Falkenberg. His coat opens and they realise that there is nothing but blackness beneath. All of them are swallowed by the blackness.

Zach, the Rat's Nest resident technomancer, comes around much later at the Nest's clinic. He discovers that he had been drawn into an UV host and only just escaped with his life.

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I had a lot of fun GMing this story. The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is fascinating and offered a background in front of which the story almost told itself. Since no-one was playing their normal characters anyway, we decided to do a little experiment and played Dread instead. Dread is a free storytelling game that uses a Jenga tower instead of dice. Whenever a character want to do something not easily accomplished, the player draws a block from the Jenga tower. The first couple of draws were easy, but after a while my players grew remarkably afraid of having to draw. The Dread rulebook mentions that, but I didn't actually believe it would be so effective. The decision agony and the shaking hands are among my favourite memories from that evening, sadistic GM that I am.

A UV host is virtual reality that is much, much better than real life. This particular one is run by an AI that is at the same time imprisoned there, but is slowly slipping the grip of its handlers and the location is a metaphor for that: the collapse of the Third Reich. The SS doctor is the security program and was immensely interested in the characters: a technomancer would be quite a catch. The other characters were parts of a proto-AI the technomancer is friends with, who has been in contact with the AI for some time now. If Zach had cooperated with the doctor, he would have been caught on the UV host with no chance to escape. To win this game, he had to lose. Dying was the only way out.

I didn't tell the players what was happening. They got the questionnaires Dread uses for character creation and a bit background information on what was happening around Gotenhafen and I let them chose between a couple of character concept (with the exception of Zach's player who had to be a nazi). I did tell them before we started that we were still playing Shadowrun and that things happening here would have consequences. There were a couple of details that I introduced to add to the confusion, like the flag the Gustloff was flying, the fact that the SS doctor didn't have a face (the characters found that normal...the players less so) and the fact that they they all spoke the same language - the character's mothertongue, depending on who was the one listening. The players made some good guesses, but didn't waste too much time trying to figure it out, throwing themselves into their characters with gusto instead. I think the experiment was a success.

The Rat's Nest campaign is on Obsidian Portal.

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