Note: this is the second post in a series. In the previous post, I discussed my long, long hiatus from RPG gaming, why I chose the game Dread for my first game in a decade and a half, and a bit about the game mechanics. You might want to start there.
So… we played our first session of Dread on Sunday night. I hosted a Dread game session with Miss Jiwaku, and our friends Nick, Katrina, and Ian. (Information about who played which character withheld to protect the preciously twisted minds among us, ha…)
The scenario was one of mine, titled “Talent Night,” which explains the title of this series of posts. I’ll be making the scenario available online at the end of this series, though I want to make some adjustments to it before I publish it–I learned a lot from the game session, and figure I may as well implement it back into the game design before I share it.
But the basic setup is: the story features a group of teachers and staff at a middle school, a few months after a mass suicide among the students. The mass suicide attains an infamy somewhat comparable to that of a school shooting incident, having brought national attention to the school. When Talent Night rolls around a month and a half later, the whole community, including the school, feels ready for this to be the moment when they move on, leaving the horror and sadness and darkness behind. Except, the horror and darkness and sadness is not ready to be left behind…
Obviously, the theme is bullying, a subject that’s been in the news a lot lately, and about which I’ve written about recently myself.
And that’s pretty much what I gave the players to go on, as far as the basis for this evening. That, and the leading and loaded questions on their questionnaires. Which is important.
It means that the players essentially made up a lot of the details about the school, as well as their own characters. Therefore, a lot of details that follow were generated by them, not by me, which is interesting. Player involvement was more thorough as part of the worldbuilding, though of course not as complete as in some other RPGs out there. For example, the name of the school, which was Blueberry Hill Middle School. For example, the choice of a goat as school mascot. For example, the number of kids involved in the mass suicide. I set the players up to give their characters flaws, conflicts, obsessions, hopes, motivations, but the specific were up to them.
I feel like noting that is important, because the content of the game itself is NSFW, in about five or six different ways. It’s probably all kinds of trigger-warning-worthy too, especially if you found the events at Enumclaw disturbing.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
But actually, the funny thing was that all that horrifying stuff was kind of played for laughs, something I didn’t expect at all.
That said, I’ll just launch into the narrative:
The game started with the players introducing their characters, and a motley bunch they were: Jack O’Sullivan was the gym teacher, a baseball fanatic in the peak of health, but also a very strong (though not quite fanatical) Christian, with one dark secret that was to come out later on in the evening, which he felt doomed him to hell. The secret was known only to the aging, overweight, food-obsessed Biology teacher, Walter Knight. Walter was a divorced Canadian with a hatred for hippies and vegan food, and a generally unpleasant fellow who hated students and tended to hang out on the roof of the school. His daughter had run away from home a few years earlier, never to be seen again, and he had an unfortunate habit of being mean to over-sensitive students in his class.
The Principal of the school, Paul Ball was an amateur artist and cruel-hearted principal, whose highest pleasure in life was to torture teachers in his employ. He and Walter Knight hated one another after an incident at the Christmas party, where one insulted the other’s cooking, though Ball mostly hated Knight because he seemed to be so arrogant about his intelligence. Paul Ball entertained a secret fantasy about destroying the school in a gas explosion, but since that wasn’t possible, he was instead focusing on what to do with the Guidance Counseling Office, given the suicide issue. That was unsettling news for Troy Andersen, the perverted guidance counselor who had an unhealthy obsession with young girls (especially a student named Sarah M., who reminded him of his own daughter), a collection of upskirt shots of girls from the school on his computer, and a plan to retire to Florida in a few years. Troy had gotten roped into organizing this year’s Talent Night, an evening on which he (and everyone) was made to feel the school’s reputation was riding–a chance to show that Blueberry Hill Middle School had moved on since the awful suicides.
All this was established during the set-up, when players filled out their questionnaires, and then talked, in one case leaving the room to confer in private about something that only two of the four players’ characters were supposed to know.
For those curious about to what degree the character info was player generated, versus a product of the questionnaire, I’m attaching the completed questionnaires of the players involved. Depending on your monitor size, you may need mess with display size or simply view the set on Flickr, zoomed onto the largest size.
(Two other characters–the school nurse and the librarian–did not get used in the game, though both had interesting traits: the school nurse had some kind of ESP power, while the librarian was married to one character and cheating with another: more complexity for anyone playing the scenario, perhaps too much complexity, I don’t know…)
Oh, and about those student suicides, a little more information was also discussed in the opening section of the game: we developed a backstory wherein the twenty-five students who’d killed themselves had not gone to the guidance office (except for early career planning and course selection advising–nothing personal or emotional, though), but that each character had known at least a few of the kids, if not all of them.
Here’s what had happened: the kids had apparently formed some kind of pact and organized themselves, because they’d skipped their first block of classes for the day. At the recess period, the kids were seen at the edge of the roof of the school, lined up and holding hands and singing something that could not quite be heard from the ground level, and as all the other kids in the school came outside for their recess break, the line of twenty-five boys and girls had stepped forward off the roof and plummeted to their deaths. Walter, the Biology Teacher character, had a habit of hanging out on the roof and he turned out to have actually arrived at the rooftop that morning just as the kids stepped off; his appearance at the edge of the roof afterward provoked a lot of rumor about his imagined involvement in the suicide pact, though he was cleared of all involvement.
It’d been national news, a huge embarrassment for the school and a huge trauma to the community. But time had continued to flow on, and six weeks later, it was time to celebrate the living, to bring the community together, to show that the community was still alive and moving on.
As the story opened, the auditorium full with a big audience of family members of students slated to perform that night. All of the characters except Troy Andersen (The Guidance Counselor) were seated in the audience, and suffering through the usual student talent night stuff; Troy, since he was running the talent show, was backstage. At first, the show went on as normal, until, in the middle of the students’ production of Chicago (accompanied by the school’s concert band), a girl named Peggy was singing and dancing onstage. Then, all of a sudden, the lights went out. Ever eager to “help,” Jack the Gym Teacher rose from his seat and told people to calm down. The Principal, worried about the lightning situation, got up to figure out what was going on as Walter Knight, seated near the back of the auditorium, groaned in annoyance.
What happened next is a blur of strangenesses: the smell of a gas leak, smoke in the air, and the terrifying sight of what was happening to Peggy, onstage: she was beginning to float into the air, her face aglow with an unholy light. By that light, and the light of cell phones like Walter Knight’s, it was possible to see that the children in the audience were shuddering and shaking, beginning to rise into the air, their deafening cries filling the room.
Jack O’Sullivan panicked, fearing Satanic forces at work–his Christian beliefs set him up for such a notion–and fled the auditorium, ignoring the crunch of bone and the cries of the bodies he had to trample and smash aside to get outside; when he exited into the hallway, he realized that the school had been strangely altered in its layout–what had been a hallway only minutes ago was now a wall with lockers on it, and a rather different hallway extended in a wholly unexpected direction. There was an exit nearby, but the parents who’d fled out there were now fighting (unsuccessfully) to make their way back into the school, as the outside was inexplicably a hellish landscape of flames and smoke. O’Sullivan took off for the gym, hoping to find something in his office he could use as a weapon.
Meanwhile, Walter Knight also began to make his way out of the auditorium, though he got there after O’Sullivan. He discovered that his phone was unable to make outgoing calls–the calls were answered by some horrible demonic-sounding voice. On discovering that,and seeing the people outside horribly aflame, he waddled off down the same hallway after the Gym Teacher, though when he met up with O’Sullivan, they had encountered something terrifying…
Back at the gym, a few minutes earlier, Paul The Principal was searching the stage area for an emergency light switch, to no avail. Backstage, Troy the Guidance Counselor was starting to figure out that something utterly bizarre was going on, because even though it was dark there, the children backstage were now levitating like the children in the auditorium, screaming with their gutteral voices in unknown languages. When Paul got close to Peggy, she grabbed for his throat, and he barely managed to avoid her grip, stepping back, grabbing the fire extinguisher from nearby, and then fleeing backstage, where he found Troy working his way to ward the emergency exit that led outdoors. They reached it, but luckily Troy was paying attention: just before opening it, he noticed that it was radiating a terrific degree of heat, as if a massive bonfire were burning just outside the door. By this point, the transmogrified children were milling around overhead, slashing down at the adults, though by crawling Troy and Paul were able to avoid their slashing claws. They fought their way out of the auditorium just in time to escape a massive explosion, when the gas inside finally ignited.
The explosion was audible far away, far down the hall, where Walter the Biology Teacher and Jack the Gym Teacher stood on opposite sides of a back of children, in whose midst Mr. Hendricks, the History teacher, stood, also speaking in an inhuman-sounding language to the subtly monstrous children. Jack (or was it Walter?) had just been inside a classroom, except it had been more like a torture chamber, one equipped with something resembling a fireplace poker, which was claimed as a weapon. One child attacked Jack, who managed to repel the attack, and the group dispersed, allowing Walter and Jack to team up. They took off further down the hallway, in search of the gymnasium, where serviceable weapons might be available.
They managed to find the gym, eventually, and entered the office…
At this point, I think it was, everyone had to pull from the Jenga tower, as they were hit by the weird sensation of someone–something?–rummaging around in their minds. They all managed successfully to resist and to keep control of their bodies.
Back with Paul and Troy, they were hurrying down the same long hallway, when they happened upon a computer lab. (It had been dark when Walter and Jack had passed it, but now the computer screens were aglow.) The door slammed shut after Troy had entered, leaving Paul alone with the computers. He approached one, and was (unsettlingly) aroused by what he saw: it was a video of something that had never actually happened, his perverse fantasy about Sarah M. being played out on the screen. Paul stood watching for a while, mesmerized as the scene he’d imagined before unfolded: then, it became a news report, on national television, in which he was outed as a predatory monster. While Troy sat, mesmerized by the awfulness onscreen, the monitors glowed slowly brighter as the moments passed, and Paul, meanwhile, struggled to open the door and get Troy the hell out out of there…
… while, in the office–which, note, was not Jack’s office, but some other office in some other school, vaguely like Jack’s office–Jack and Walter searched for something, anything that could be used as a weapon. There was a supply room adjoining the office, but it was dark so they couldn’t see anything. It was very likely to contain the sports equipment–balls could be seen in net storage units–and the door was locked. Just before it struck Jack to search the desk for keys, something entered the room.
The something was… the school mascot. Which was, as the group had agreed beforehand, a goat. If you’ve read the character questionnaires I posted above, you know Jack’s secret, but most of us did not know it, and suddenly the secret was out: Jack had done… things… to the school mascot. It was a long-term problem of his, so dark and troubling that his affair with a student years before hardly plagued his conscience at all; a problem so persistent that Jack was convinced he’d someday go to hell because of this sinfulness.
(Like I said, Enumclaw. Also, ick. And also, NSFW.)
Walter the Biology Teacher had once walked in on him having with the school mascot… and then kept it to himself. The goat, of course, was also now transformed: it had taken a form somewhere between a human being and a goat, a (male) Pan-like satyr form, which spoke accusingly to Jack. Jack, in a panic, seized the large, old monitor of the desktop computer and threw it at the goat… which caught hold of it, grabbed the cable, and began to swing it by the cable around the room, moving closer.
Just then, Walter found the keys to the equipment room, in which Jack and Walter took refuge, and frantically searched for weapons.
(By this point, the Jenga tower was becoming unsettlingly precarious, note.)
… at which point, Paul smashed the door handle off the door with the fire-ax that he and Troy had picked up along the way; astoundingly, it swung free. Troy emerged out into the hallway, only to meet the crowd of transmogrified children and Hendricks amidst them. Paul, panicking, sprayed the kids with fire-retardant, and the cloud that filled the hallway concealed the children, though one stepped forward: Sarah M., vulnerable, still in human form, looking into Troy’s eyes. She began to enact one of Troy’s more perverse fantasies (I’m sure our gentle reader can imagine what kind), though of course this action soon turned violent, as her grip on him became crushing…
At which point Paul (who was standing by in horror) intervened, chopping off the demonic girl’s arm with the fireman’s axe. (By this point, Paul and the others had reconciled themselves to the likelihood that what looked to them like students were either monsters, or the embodiment o forces that had hijacked Blueberry Hill Middle School, and that fighting back was a question of do-or-die. They still felt qualms, but they managed to look past them while fighting for their lives.) Hendricks and his crew dispersed again, fleeing into a classroom, and Paul and Troy continued on their way down the hall, Troy in too much of a rush to remove the bleeding arm that gripped him grew still ever-tighter…
… as Jack and Walter managed to find the weapons they needed. Not the ones they wanted, mind — they found bows and arrows, and there was that poker in hand. But the room started to come to life, the balls in the net storage system turning into heads, screaming heads, as the door was bashed in by the goat-thing. Both Jack and Walter let loose a volley of arrows at the thing, though Walter only managed to avoid misfiring and hurting himself or Jack. (Jenga pulls, and calculated risk.) But Jack, with all his practice teaching archery to kids, managed to strike the thing a few times and immobilize it, before…
Now I’m struggling to remember. I seem to have this memory that the tower went down at this point, though I also recall the four characters meeting in the hallway briefly. Um… we enjoyed beer along with the game. Corrections welcome by those who remember better than I do.
In any case, around this point they ran into Hendricks’ and his gang of transmogrified children, and (if I remember it right) while fighting them off, Jack’s player knocked over the tower, and paid the ultimate price, dying suddenly… and glimpsing torment at the end of the long, dark tunnel ahead of him as his life drained away. Troy and Paul continued to fight, hoping to go further down the hallway and hunt for a ground-floor level exit free of hellfire, while Walter, ever the un-gregarious sort, ignored them and took off for his favorite place, the roof.
When he reached the roof, he found it utterly unlike anyone in the school during the pandemonium would have expected: it was bright, sunny… it was just like that afternoon when the children had stepped off the roof… and there they were, under the blue, blue sky, all in a line. As Walter approached them, one broke rank, turning to face him. I think this child was unfamiliar to Walter, and simply tried to reach out to him; Walter shoved the kid off the roof, successfully avoiding its attack. The second kid to turn toward him, though, was tougher to deal with: it was a student from Walter’s class: an overweight, unpopular girl he’d mocked when she couldn’t handle the worm-dissection in class. The exact words escape me a little, but this is an approximation of their conversation:
“Why did you make fun of me?” she asked. “Why did you tell me to kill myself?”
“Because you were being weak,” he said.
“How could you say that to me?” she asked.
“Be strong,” he replied softly. Well, it was kind of a redeeming moment, consider that he could have told her to jump off a roof. The moment was tense as she reached out to embrace him, and when the player expressed Walter’s desire to resist the embrace, I called for one more pull from the precarious Jenga tower.
The Jenga tower went down, and so did Walter Knight, as the ghostly girl, clasping him to her with an inhuman strength, stepped off the roof and they fell toward oblivion…
… at which point, finally, we had only a few minutes left to play, so, in probably the most anti-climactic Jenga pull of the night, Paul the Principal (or was it Troy the Guidance Counselor?) managed to take out Mr. Hendricks with the fire extinguisher (or was it the axe?).
Troy’s freely-expressed suspicion that Hendricks was involved in the horrific events of that evening was proved correct. The school, though still on fire, still littered with bodies, was now the same school they all knew, the hallways all in the places they ought to be. Though I’d planned for only one character to survive–whichever one lasted longest–the subway schedule and our late start meant that two lucky characters survived.
(Note: chronologically, that’s what happened, though in gameplay, Hendricks was neutralized first, and then Walter’s fate played out, with the looming question of whether he’d hold out long enough to enjoy liberation as a result of Hendricks going down. He didn’t, which was, in a narrative sense, probably right, for he was a bullying curmudgeon and this story was about the rightful wages of bullying…)
And that’s how my Talent Night scenario played out. Longer than I expected, more NSFW by far, with with some relatively good moments, and a lot more laughs than I expected.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss what I learned from running the game, and at some point a bit later on, I’ll post a copy of my scenario which we ran, titled Talent Night, for anyone interested in trying it out.