I spent a couple of days prepping mostly from the Need to Know starter booklet and the Agent’s Handbook. I think the former was more condensed and useful for the first game, but I have no doubt that if we get to slide into some of the more advanced mechanics we’ll get good mileage out of the latter.
Everybody had a good time though it ended up lasting about six hours. :)
DG is a descendant/spin-off/spiritual-successor to Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. It’s a table-top RPG mostly in the investigative/horror genre.
The setup is basically that there’s a clandestine organization in the United States whose job it is to prevent the spread of the Unnatural—sometimes by fighting, often by covering-up, and always only temporarily. Man exists on a tiny life-raft of sanity on a vast ocean of dark madness, and the only thing we can do is plug leaks and prevent people from trying to pull stuff into the boat for a closer look.
While CoC is set in a little more pulpy setting (early 1900s), DG takes place in a sort of post-9/11 world. The threat model—as admirably demonstrated by one of my players whose character was working at a TAO unit before something caused the engineers there to go mad and start stringing each other up with Ethernet cabling—is very different. The police state exists, the vast organs of government and security are everywhere, and running black ops is both a lot easier and a lot harder than it would be in turn of the century coastal New England. Further, in a world with cell phones, cameras, and Twitter keeping people from learning about and spreading knowledge about the Unnatural is a lot trickier—if a page from an ancient tome can drive the reader mad, what sort of havoc can a TikTok film of a sacrifice yield?
Further, the SAN system (for modeling sanity damage from being exposed to the Unnatural) from CoC has been augmented and expanded with a system of Bonds. Bonds are the relationships PCs have with other groups and people in their lives and can be sacrificed^Wleveraged to provide support between operations to help recover lost SAN. Using bonds in this way—or just failing to keep up with them in Home scenes between operations—causes them to weaken, until eventually the PC has no support network.
In contrast to D&D, the big change is that the PCs are easy to get injured and really don’t progress hugely over the course of the game. In D&D you get to level up every so often, getting magical feats and new abilities—in DG, the only rapid character change tends to be the acquisition of new disorders. The skill point system assumes years or decades of training, and all of the characters are usually starting in their mid-30s, so you don’t see “rapid” character growth in anything except perhaps the knowledge of the Unnatural…which comes with a whole host of issues.
It’s quite a bit different from the other TTRPGs I’ve played (ignoring a CoC one-shot my friend ran) and run, mainly because it weakens the player characters so much.
Also, frankly, it’s just kind of a dark and dreary setting. Black humor or absurdism is about as much levity as we get. I discovered the system during an unhappy period in my life, and it’s oddly cathartic to indulge that even though—perhaps, because—I’m in a happier place now.
Important note: DG is best when players don’t know anything about the plot, setting, or history—so, if you expect to play it instead of running it, don’t spoil it for yourself! Let your Handler handle the mythos. No spoilers exist in this blog post, but be careful elsewhere.
The session we ran went pretty smoothly. I got everybody their character base stats (not skills) Friday, they mostly got character builds to me on Saturday, and Sunday (yesterday) we played.
Everybody stayed mostly serious, though in-character there was some consternation as they were (rightly) skeptical of this weird person giving them weird orders in a weird non-quite-stated conspiracy. They followed reasonable opsec and sigsec, and overall—barring the trucker character who was a little less professional given their background than the fed or the spook—didn’t do anything too amazingly misguided in their mission to visit a former DG agent’s apartment and clean up traces of the org’s existence.
We found a nice Google Sheets template for the character sheets and that made it easy to help with builds Saturday night. They had a live-edited Google Doc was used to keep track of in-session events and copy over pictures and maps, which made keeping facts and party knowledge straight easy. All the players attended over Zoom, which functioned well except for the occasional hiccups from one player’s connection. We used a chatbot or dice to do rolls.
Another friend of ours even dropped in and listened politely, and occasionally screen-shared flavor images that matched the descriptions of various settings and locales. This was a pleasant surprise, and at one point I was kinda shocked when they pulled up an image of exactly the sort of apartment complex my players were investigating. Perfection.
In the debrief, the main complaint (kind of as expected) was that the session ran long. I’d kinda budgeted for three hours and we’d ended up running about six. I’m happy that people were engaged/patient enough to put up with it, but I also want to respect everybody’s time—especially if we want to do this regularly, it needs to be easy to schedule around. We had a little trouble hitting story beats in a way that would’ve made it easy to say “okay, let’s break here for the night”.
Second, the connection issue for Zoom was annoying and something we need to try and figure out in the future. It’s not terrible, but probably cost us about 5-10 minutes over the whole time played. Not great, not terrible.
Third, even though the players congratulated me on my descriptions and narration there was some expressed desire to “fast-forward” in places. A good chunk of my fun is storytelling so I’m unwilling to budge too much on that point, but I think there are probably some places where I could be a little thriftier and still have the same effect.
Fourth, as expected during a first session in a new campaign and setting and player group, a lot of things just took longer than they needed to—somewhat exacerbating three above. There was some trouble figuring out how to take turns properly during actions, one player seemed to keep getting cut-off while speaking, sometimes it was not obvious when individual players needed to be acting versus the party as a whole. Nothing too gnarly, and I’m pretty sure we’ll figure it out next time, but definitely something to keep in mind.
Everybody seemed to have a good time, and we’re looking forward to running the second half of things. I think we’ll be able to address the areas we want to improve, and if we’re (un)lucky the PCs will be mostly alive enough to maybe make this a regular game.
It’s nice to have a break from the power fantasy of D&D and frankly I’m getting a bit tired of running that in a way that those players enjoy.
A group of skilled, competent characters trying their best to salvage a bad situation without recognition and adequate support while also avoiding the slow crushing despair of losing friends and losing sanity from trying to understand things that just don’t make sense is a closer reflection of the startup engineering I’ve been involved with anyways.
It’s easier to narrate.