A precog walks into a bar …

Now a few weeks into the first play-test of the 3rd edition of The 23rd Letter, I wanted to post some updates on what’s been going in the game, and a few reflections as both Referee and game designer. First off, let’s talk about the party, which in this edition is by default a Cell in the Network. If you’ve never player T23L before, the Network is the psychic underground, a loosely connected group of people (some psychic, some not) who help each other to survive, and to keep off the government radar. This game is set in St. Louis, Missouri, chosen because it’s a big city, in the middle of the USA, which none of my players have been to.

  • Richard Moonglow – in his mid-50s, Richard lives out of his old VW camper van and would’ve been a hippie if he hadn’t been born two decades late. He is a powerful Precog, but in his worldview “everything just happens the way it was meant to, man.”
  • Clark (NPC) – Clark is a Cryokinetic, an unusual psychic power which allows him to reduce the temperature of things around him. However, just before the start of our game, Clark went missing.
  • Joy Mary Smith – Joy is a nurse in her late 30s working at a local hospital. She first encountered psychics while treating Clark after he was in a car accident–when he regained consciousness, he froze his saline drip! She’s been helping the Cell ever since.
  • Detective Jenny Blake – Jenny works for St. Louis Metro PD, in their Domestic department. She has a chip on her shoulder about being overlooked for promotion or better roles, and helps the Cell partially out of spite for her job. She and Joy are close friends, having met because they are neighbors in their apartment block.
  • Vonbella Alexander – Young, blonde and classically beautiful, Vonbella is a medium, talking to the spirits of the dead to help her clients. In reality, she’s a minor Telepath, who reads her clients’ minds and makes up stories to fleece them of their hard-earned cash. Hey, everyone’s gotta make a living, right?
  • Bryce – Bryce is Clark’s brother and is traveling to St. Louis to find him. He works as a chef, mostly to help cover up the fact that he is Pyrokinetic.

Each player decided for themselves whether to be a psychic (or Esper, as they’re also known) without really talking to anyone else, so we ended up with an interesting mix of three Espers, and two regular folks (or Nulls, as they are sometimes called). We’ve had three sessions after character creation. Our first two sessions were played without Bryce, because his player was unavailable, and Bryce just arrived in the third session.

Session 1

Richard receives a message from Royal, one of his Network contacts. The group meets up at their favourite Waffle House to discuss the message. Clark’s brother is coming to town, which is when the group realizes that they haven’t seen Clark in over a week. The message also instructs the group to collect a package from a drop location. “Blue Monday, 3C, location Bravo.”

Jenny stops by the motel where Clark has been staying, only to discover he checked out a week ago. Some questioning of the staff led her to the lost and found box, where she discovered his copy of Call of Duty for the Xbox, which had been left behind under the bed. Why wouldn’t he pack that?

The group scopes out location Bravo: it’s a warehouse out in the suburbs, and it’s closed (it’s a Sunday). They decide they’ll come back when it’s open, because the message is a little on the cryptic side. Maybe they can just go in and ask for Blue Monday?

Notes: there wasn’t much in the way of psychic activity in this session, although Richard did attempt (and failed) to see if his precognition was telling him anything about Clark or location Bravo. This is when we realized (as game designers) that even though Richard was a Major precog, he was not any likelier to succeed than a Minor precog on the dice roll, and we decided that Major powers should get to roll two dice for their powers rather than just one. This is now so fundamental to how the game works that it was definitely a good call!

Session 2

Richard received a precognitive vision in his dreams, and decided that the right time to visit location Bravo was actually later that night. (As the Referee, having both a Telepath and Precog in the group gives me a lot of opportunity to help shape the story without being railroading too much. I realised I hadn’t given enough info in my cryptic message to be truly useful, so I added this bit in).

The group arrived at the location only to discover that someone had been there before them. Tire tracks in the ground were the first hint, and then the door to the warehouse being broken open was the dead giveaway! They went inside all the same, and in location 3C in the warehouse, in one of shipping company’s cardboard boxes, was a baby, wrapped in a blanket. A hastily scribbled note in the box read “Blue Monday.” The group decided they should smash up the warehouse a bit, figuring that vandalism would be less likely to draw attention than a break-in where nothing was taken. (The Cell received 1 Heat for this, bringing them to 6, enough for the Referee to roll at the end of the session to see if anyone takes an interest in their activities).

Joy and Jenny took the baby to the hospital to check it over for its health, while Richard and Vonbella went to a 24-hour Walmart to buy some baby supplies. They all met back at Joy’s apartment and deliberated about what to do. Eventually they decided to send a message back to Royal to ask for further instructions. While waiting for an answer, they tried to figure out what had happened to Clark, and eventually worked their way into his email account (passwords aren’t as secure as you think, when you have a Telepath for a friend). They discovered he’d posted a personals ad and had been arranged to meet a woman about a week prior. He’d sent no further emails since that date. Jenny took note of the location they were meant to meet for later reference.

The answer came back from Royal by the end of the session. “Split in half. Keep half and drop the other half at location Echo.”

Notes: Joy’s player spent most of the session holding a make-believe baby and trying to keep it soothed. I think there was maybe one or two dice rolls the whole session, and virtually no NPC interaction (apart from the Walmart staff) – the group just roleplayed everything out among themselves and had a blast. As both Referee and game designer, this was very positive feedback! The players know their characters and how their relationships and are happy just acting them out.

Session 3

Vonbella wakes up from some awful dreams, where she’s being interrogated, somewhere near to the Gateway Arch (the big landmark in downtown St. Louis). She tells the group some of it, but it’s pretty vague and the group decides not to take any action.

Bryce arrived in from Florida, after a long bus ride on a Greyhound. Richard picked him up and brought him back to Joy’s apartment, where a very suspicious Vonbella and Jenny interrogated him. At one point, Jenny pulled her gun on him, trying to provoke a reaction (when she did this with Clark, he accidentally froze his coffee!) Bryce, however, was not as easily triggered as his little brother, so Vonbella tried to read his mind, which led to some Pyschic Friction (this is a new mechanic, and basically the Espers push against each other psychically until one of them backs down … or explodes). Both Bryce and Vonbella came off badly from this incident, nursing some aches and pains and generally disliking each other intensely, but Jenny was happy that they’d proven Bryce was an Esper at least.

To help calm things down, Richard takes Bryce to go help in the local soup kitchen, and on the way they send a message to Royal asking for a face-to-face meeting – surely there must be some mistake, nobody could really be suggesting to split the baby in half?! Jenny spends some time during her working day to look at footage of the park where Clark was meant to meet his date, and discovers that Clark was grabbed by two men who injected him with something and tossed him into the back of a van! She immediately panics, and worried that everyone is at equal risk of being grabbed, sends the bug out signal to everyone (which the group agreed would be a picture of a Quokka). Everybody gets their emergency bags and heads out of town to a log cabin near the commune where Richard used to live. On the way, Richard picks up the reply from Royal, with a location for a meeting the next day.

Out in the cabin, Jenny brings the group up to speed. She may have overreacted, but everybody thinks its better safe than sorry. Bryce talks a bit about he and his brother’s past, how his parents were killed because they wouldn’t let Clark be taken by “some guys in suits”, and how Bryce’s talent literally exploded out of him that night. Vonbella makes some off-colour comments about his history, and pisses Bryce off even more, but Richard plays the peacekeeper. Everyone settles in to try to get a night’s sleep before they go back to the city tomorrow.

Notes: Bryce and Vonbella generated a lot of Stress dice on themselves and each other with their Pyschic Friction, so they are tense and angry. This also spills onto Richard because when Espers are close together, they feel each other’s stress. It’s going to be difficult for the group to get any sleep at all tonight …

About AJ

Gamist: 14%, Simulationist: 29%, Narrativist: 57%. Ah, the irony.
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