Apocalypse (1998)

Overview

What it is, where it came from, and what I was smoking at the time :)

Apocalypse was a contemporary Sci-Fi/Horror campaign, designed to mimic a TV series. I was shooting for a blend of the X-Files and American Gothic TV series, centering around a World of Darkness core, with a distinct Lovecraft-ian flair (more recently, though, I’d have to add the new Night Stalker series and Carnivale to the mix). The entire campaign was to take place in the same fictitious small town of Apocalypse, New Mexico, situated on top of a powerful Hellmouth (Ref: BtVS)—in fact, they would never be allowed to leave. The ultimate antagonist of the series was to be a powerful, Evil™ supernatural being called the Destroyer, and his minions, bent on seeing him to power. During the course of the campaign, the PCs would meet and/or battle all the elements of the World of Darkness—vampires, lycans, changelings, Magi, etc—and would briefly visit the spirit-world (Umbra), along with a small bit of time-travel. Originally, it was to have a run of six “seasons,” of six episodes apiece. The Player Characters were chosen by the Players from several pre-created by the GM, and then customized by the Players. The campaign was intended to be “combat-light,” concentrating more on intrigue and drama than the usual hack & slash. Each episode would also end with a scene, figuratively depicting the progression of the story, in the form of a game of chess being played by representatives of “Good™ and Evil™.”

The idea for the campaign came from a combination of two elements. One, I was dissatisfied, at the time, with my attempts at world-building large and complex settings; the idea came to me to make a much smaller “area” the focus of the campaign, while building in a much more rich background and level of detail than would normally be feasible. Two, I very much liked the feel of the song “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and wanted to use it as a campaign theme, leading to the concept of the Destroyer. As I had heard that song on the X-Files inspirational album, Songs in the Key of X, I naturally thought of the X-Files as a basis for the campaign, and thus the campaign was born.







A note of caution to potential GMs: The more “cerebral” nature of this campaign won’t work well for the hack & slash, kick-in-the-front-door variety of gaming groups—you have to know your Players, and you have to play to your audience or they won’t enjoy it. Also, the darker and more adult-oriented themes involved definitely aren’t suited to younger Players.

Dramatis Personæ

Who played who, who they met there, and who tried to kill them

Player Characters

Nathaniel Francis Kent (Phil)
A Catholic priest and “Shadow Hunter” (J. Carpenter’s Vampires is a decent example), represented by Michael Ironside (Ref: Total Recall)
Story: He is a Catholic priest, who is interested in the occult. He started out trying to hunt down and bust Satanic cults, but later moved to hunting vampires and other supernatural creatures. He was once turned into a vampire against his will, but managed to escape that fate through a process that involved passing his blood over a crucifix and returning it to his body. The experience has left his body somewhat damaged. He even had to file down his teeth. He is haunted by the knowledge of his weakness and inability to prevent that event. He was later publicly booted from the church for being a looney, but continued his work, with under-the-table support from a few of his former employers who believed in him and wished for his work to continue in secret. He has personally killed 8 vampires and 1 werewolf, and has supervised the destruction of 5 more vampires. He will use anything he can get hold of to give him an edge, even if they are normally considered taboo.

His sponsors have sent him to a small, out-of-the-way town in New Mexico, called Apocalypse, to contact the local church to look into some paranormal activity there. He arrived last night, staying at the Oxford Inn in town. As he began to move about the town, a stranger passed by who mentioned Kent’s name and had some seriously bad “vibes.”  So, Kent followed him, ending up in a residential area. Kent kept a low profile, hiding in the parking lot of a nearby church, and watched as the mystery man entered a house, followed by three others, one by one. He then heard three shots, apparently coming from the upper floor of the house.

Note: A later version of this Character had him functioning in a more-official capacity, being sent unwittingly to Apocalypse to replace the aging Shadow Hunter in place there already.

SA Michael Taylor (Esque)
Skeptical FBI agent, represented by Michael T. Weiss (Ref: Pretender)
Story: He wouldn’t believe in the paranormal at all except for an incident in his childhood where he and some friends spent the night in a “haunted” house. He saw a woman dressed in civil war era dress pacing back and forth in front of a window.

He is still haunted by the death of his little brother. He feels responsible for it since, when his brother went out that night, he elected to stay home and watch TV.

He came straight out of the FBI academy and was assigned to partner with SA Terence Aggelis, known as Aggie to his friends, an agent for 2 years. The first big case they were assigned to was a serial murder case concerning a man known only as Charles, or “Evil Charlie,” specifically because Charles started calling Taylor about his crimes. His m. o. involved kidnapping small girls from department stores, in full public view, and then taking them to a secluded place to sexually assault and dismember them. Ten girls have been found, from Montana to New Mexico, where he was last seen. He then calls the FBI to gloat and taunt his pursuers. They still have no solid evidence, other than phoned admissions, and sightings are rare and sketchy. The last lead they had had him heading for a small, out-of-the-way town called Apocalypse, in New Mexico. The Bureau sent them to investigate the lead. Upon their arrival, they managed to spot him, and followed him into a residential area. Observing discreetly, they watched him enter a house, followed by three more unidentified men, one by one. Then three shots were heard coming from the upper floor of the house. Aggie decided it was time to move in. The pair ran up to the house and kicked in the door.

Gareth Eldred (Moch)
An amnesiac psionicist, represented by Kevin Spacey (Ref: Seven)
Story: Unknown to the Player (I had a complete story printed, as for the others, that I planned to release to the Player at the beginning of each session with the majority of it blacked out, revealing a line or two more at a time as his memory was recovered). He wakes to the sound of three shots being fired elsewhere in the house, with no knowledge of how he got there, what he was doing—or who he is for that matter.

Jonathan Franks (McNurlen)
A petty thief and gang-member, on the run, represented by Christian Slater (Ref: Kuffs)
Story: An orphan, he lived in and out of foster homes throughout his childhood. He was involved in gangs as a thief. Nicknamed “spooky” for his tendency to go chasing after things no one else could see (blamed it on acid flashbacks). He was apprehended at the scene of the burglary of an electronics store and placed in a squad car to have his ID processed. While in the car, Ted, a drug dealer also known as “Teddy Krueger” who had been tormenting Franks for some time, arrived and savagely killed the policeman, framing Franks for the murder. Franks was free. He discovered, after pushing buttons and pulling strings, that Ted hangs out in a small, out-of-the-way town called Apocalypse, New Mexico a lot, and was probably there now. He stole a car and headed for New Mexico.

He spotted Ted while driving around the town, and followed him into a residential area. There he saw Ted enter a house and, after discreetly parking out of the way, resolved to go in after him. Upon entering, he saw no one. He was looking around when another man, claiming to be searching for someone named Jack, enters and begins scouring the house as well. Shortly after, another man enters -a bounty hunter looking for Franks. As the bounty hunter attempts to subdue him, three shots are heard coming from the opposite room.

Ian MacGreevy (Mark)
An Irish mob hit-man, represented by Val Kilmer (Ref: The Saint)
Story: Born to an Irish mob family in Chicago. His mother died while he was young and he was left with his father, a hit-man. As he grew older, he took up his father’s profession. Two years ago, his father was murdered by a rival family in retribution for a previous hit. He just recently discovered that Jack was responsible, and he resolved to avenge his father’s death. After asking around, sometimes forcefully, he discovered that Jack was headed for a small, out-of-the-way town in New Mexico called Apocalypse. MacGreevy then headed there himself.

Upon his arrival, he spotted Jack, and followed him to a residential area. He watched him enter a house, followed shortly after by another man he didn’t recognize. He resolved to go in after him. As he entered the house, he met a man identifying himself as Franks, who was looking for someone also. As they went their separate ways searching the house, a third man entered claiming to be looking for Franks and went upstairs after him. An argument ensued, followed shortly after by three gunshots.

Note: A later version of this character was named Rafael Aguerra, represented by Antonio Banderas, and was Mexican rather than Irish—otherwise, it was the same character.

Alexander James (Chad)
A bounty hunter chasing down Franks, represented by James Wood (Ref: J.Carpenter’s Vampires) (initially by Tom Berenger (Ref: Platoon))
Story: He lived all his life in New Mexico, with his father, Jim James, a vietnam vet known as “Jim-Jim” to his war buddies, and three brothers. He doesn’t remember his mother and his father avoided speaking of her. He spent a great deal of time hunting with his father and brothers, and is an avid outdoorsman. He spent 8 years in the USArmy Rangers.

After exiting the military, he spent a year as a repo man, supplementing his income by doing some bounty hunting on the side. He later dropped the repo business in favor of the bounty hunting. He has gone after 9 bounties, one of which escaped, a Brit named David who escaped prison where he was doing time for armed robbery and murder. He was currently hunting a murder suspect, named Jonathan Franks, from Oklahoma City, who fled to New Mexico. The bounty is $10,000, owing the high amount to the fact that he killed a policeman. The suspect was a white gang-banger with multiple small-time crimes on his sheet, mostly dealing with breaking-and-entering and auto theft. The suspect stole a car at the scene, and had been seen sporadically around the city before crossing into New Mexico.

He traced the suspect to a small, out-of-the-way town called Apocalypse, where he spotted his car, and shadowed him into a residential area. He observed him going into a house, followed shortly by another unidentified man. He resolved to go in after him. He entered the house and immediately spotted Franks. He announced his intent and tried to apprehend the suspect. Then three shots were heard upstairs.

Note: In the later attempt at this campaign, this character was to be played by a different Player, as Chad had disappeared from the scene a long time prior.

Replacement PCs:

Adrian Lambert (Trent Reznor)
Notes: Writer, AKA Damien Sinclair; replaces Kent
Andrew McGregor (Ben Browder/Brad Johnson)
Notes: Soldier; replaces Taylor
[Eldred II] (Johnny Depp)
Notes: Psionicist, Eldred’s son; replaces Eldred
[?]James Mason (Bill Pullman)
Notes: Private Investigator; replaces Taylor
[?]Eaton Campbell (Tommy Lee Jones)
Notes: Bounty Hunter; replaces Franks
[?]Isaac Stillman (Jason Carter)
Notes: Forensic Investigator
[?]Liz Campbell (Jodie Foster)
Notes: Doctor; replaces McGregor
[?][Archaeologist] (Gabriel Byrne)
Notes: Archaeologist
[?][Journalist] (Christopher Walken)
Notes: Journalist

Major NPCs

PC Allies
  • SA Terence “Aggie” Aggelis (Armand Assante); Taylor’s FBI partner
  • Father Baird (Peter O’Toole); Kent’s mentor, current Vatican Shadow-Hunter for this area, pastor at the catholic church in town
Mr. Shadow’s Henchmen (Note: Named after famous serial killers)
  • John (Jeff Kober, Ref: First Power; Opp: Kent
  • Jeffrey (Willem Dafoe, Ref: Sam Neill-Event Horizon); Opp: Eldred
  • Charles (Clancy Brown, Ref: Highlander); Opp: Taylor/McGregor
  • Ted (Kiefer Sutherland, Ref: Lost Boys); Opp: Franks
  • Jack (“Satan-Lost Highway”); Opp: MacGreevy/Aguerre
  • David (Sting, Ref: DLDune); Opp: James

Execution

What I planned to do, and how I planned to do it

The pacing and structure of each individual session was intended to have a TV series-like feel, as each run was meant to represent a TV series “season.” At the time it was initially run, all the GMs in our group rotated GMing duties at four weeks per GM; I appealed for six, resulting in the six-episode “season.” The Pilot Episode, the only portion of this campaign that was actually played, to date, was run in late 1998. In the later attempt to run the campaign, I decided to keep the time-period of the campaign at ’98—I thought the Y2K tension was fitting.

I positioned the town of Apocalypse close enough to Roswell, NM, so as to encourage Players’ “extraterrestrial” suspicions at the outset, although the story would never actually take that direction. For the town, I used Seminole, OK, a suitably quaint small town I was forced to visit often (as my ex-wife was from there). As such, I was able to obtain a street map, and many of the locations that were or were to be used in the game were based on actual locations in the real town. In fact, some of the local stories were used as inspiration for parts of the campaign. Using a real town gave me a much better ability to describe the places involved, and eventually I would have included photos and such in the game.

In order to establish a greater “sense of mortality” in the Players, I announced that all PCs would be killed during the course of the campaign (as normally, a GM is expected to take “reasonable measures” to keep PCs alive). In a later abortive attempt to run the game, I had the Players choose two characters at the outset, for their inevitable replacements.

By creating the PCs myself, I could control their backgrounds to an extent, and could be assured of getting the sort of Characters the story ultimately required, along with appropriate plot-hooks and such. Since I know the Players pretty well, I was able to tailor the Characters to their particular individual tastes, and had a reasonable idea who would be picking which. PCs were based on 150 points; I created them at 100-125 points, and left the remainder to the Players to customize—to make the Character “theirs.” They chose the names themselves. I also included a GMPC (Aggie) in the party to help “steer” them all in the right direction, initially, fully intending to kill him off relatively early. The back-stories I wrote for each Character all ended with them ending up in the same place and time, with the actual game starting at the moment the stories leave off.

For the psychic Character, I used pre-prepared flash cards for his dreams and visions, which worked out as he had little control of his abilities in the beginning. As he gained control, however, I, as GM, would’ve been required to improvise more and more often.

Synopsis

Where the Players went, who they saw, and what they conquered

Pilot Episode: “Welcome To Apocalypse”: Monday, 20 July 1998

  • PCs showed up at Slaughter House around 22:30. Three gunshots heard from upper floor of the house. A mad fracas then ensued, with the two FBI men trying to subdue everyone in the building (handcuffing MacGreevy), James trying to apprehend Franks, Taylor discovering the body of John Corbett in the master bedroom, MacGreevy escaping his handcuffs while the FBI guys weren’t looking, and Aggie chasing him down the alley. The local police arrived and, unable to determine the guilty party, decided to hold them all in jail for the night, amidst much protest by the FBI men. The FBI office in Albuquerque promised to send someone down to help Taylor and Aggie. Kent, who remained outside the house during the incident, was picked up outside and went to the station along with the rest. He stayed the night there, outside the jail.
  • Gonzo (local cop) was on watch. PCs tried to sleep. Eldred had precognitive dream:
    Slowmo: Eldred walks into the Slaughter house, only it has a grey tile floor, medical tables and wall filled with large stainless-steel drawers inside. Cold, Eldred standing by the drawers, opens one, and pulls back the sheet revealing Corbett’s body. Bending forward to look at his face, his eyes pop open.
    He awoke to hear scuffling elsewhere in the station. Kent and Gonzo investigated and discovered the body was missing; alerted the Sherriff who arrived shortly after. Since there was no longer any evidence, the Sherriff released the PCs on their own recognizance, admonishing them not to leave the town, as they are still being considered suspects. The Sherriff made arrangements for the PCs to stay at the Oxford Inn for the duration of the investigation.
  • PCs went off on their own, after breakfast at nearby Rusty’s, to collect their respective vehicles and belongings, with police cruisers always in the backgroud.
  • Aggie and Taylor were told by their superiors to look into the murder while they are there as it is loosely connected to the Charles case. Aggie went to the police station to dredge up any info while Taylor went to the crime-scene. After Taylor talked to an officer on the scene, he set about running the name of the victim, along with the names of the other PCs, and Franks’ and James’ tags, by the FBI background check system.
  • Kent and MacGreevy attended mass at the local Catholic church. Afterward, MacGreevy returned to the hotel while Kent talked to Father Baird, who told about the house. Kent went to the library to research the house.
  • Eldred went to the house later in the day and, using his psychic abilities, managed to be allowed to view the crime-scene, where he received several post-cognitive flashes revealing events surrounding the recent murder, along with previous events at the house.
  • Franks went to the hotel and, after a quick vending machine snack, walked to the Slaughter house, taking a winding route, to dodge police oversight, that had him arriving later that evening.
  • After cleaning up at the hotel, James set about looking for Franks, talking to the local barbers about the seedier sides of town while getting a haircut.
  • By late in the day, all the PCs (except Franks) ended up back at the hotel and discussed the facts of the case. Gonzo called Taylor and suggested that they discreetly go over the crime-scene before the police wrap it up. They resolve to go after dark.
  • Police were patrolling the neighborhood throughout the night. The PCs took two vehicles, parking blocks away on either side of the alley behind the house. They converged on the house by way of the alley to find Franks already there, picking the back-door lock. They all scoured the house together, with only Taylor finding an amulet in a well-hidden hole under the basement stairs. Eldred revealed his psychic impressions from earlier in the day.
  • They returned to the hotel and discussed the events of the day.
  • Chess-Dream Teaser: A darkened room, a feel of antiquity, a man with shadowed face sitting before ornate chess table dumps ornately-carved ebony chess pieces onto the board and starts setting them up

Aftermath

What went right, what went wrong, and lessons learned

This campaign, though short-lived, contained a great many “firsts” for me, as GM. Apocalypse was my first “cinema-based” campaign attempt, and set the stage in that regard for most of my campaigns that would follow. This was my first campaign to use “Actors” in an official sense. This was my first campaign where I created the PCs for the Players (I was worried, at first, that the Players wouldn’t care overmuch for this approach, but it actually turned out pretty well in the end). (Refer to GM Tips & Tools section for details on these elements) This was also my first “combat-light” campaign attempt.  I consider each of these elements to have been an ultimate success, even though only the “Pilot Episode” ever saw “production.” Even though it only lasted for one session, it is considered to have been a huge success—everyone loved it (or so they claim ;) ).

The game happened long enough ago that I don’t clearly remember why it was never continued. The only thought I have to that end is that our gaming group at the time had significant regular-attendance problems (and still does, to a lesser extent). The nature of this campaign virtually required that all the Players be present. In the second attempt, I intended to pick up where it left off, with a few new Players and Characters and some other minor changes, but attendance problems (forever, the bane of my GMing existence) plagued the group still, and I eventually dropped the idea, to my continual regret. This was the first of my campaigns to run afoul of this issue, and as such, my greatest lesson learned was that I needed to allow more for those inevitable attendance problems. I’m still working on that…

The initial conflict among the PCs was fun (and well-played), but as time went on, the group’s cooperation seemed a little forced, in my opinion. Keeping a group like this working together in the long-term would’ve been problematic. In retrospect, I would’ve engineered the Characters with more “reasons to work together.” As it was, in the next couple of episodes, I planned for them to end up fighting back-to-back once or twice, which would’ve encouraged them to gel better. Since the game never got that far, I don’t know how well that would’ve worked out.

As is the norm (it seems, for my games, anyway) it did seem to “drag on” in spots—maybe that’s just my perspective as GM, though. It always seems like we should’ve been able to accomplish more in less time. I’ve never been able to pin down why this happens, or how to fix it. That’s another ongoing fight… Otherwise, though, my pacing was spot-on, and the game session ended on time.

In retrospect, I made a mistake in that, after it was decided that I would not continue the campaign, I revealed the plans I had for all the Characters, and where the story was going, to the Players. In the second attempt, it had been long enough that most had forgotten what I had said, but it would’ve been better had I not done so. In order to reduce the chance that someone would remember, I directed those Players that had been involved in the first attempt to switch Characters. Phil, who knew more than most about my plans, I directed to play Eldred (the psychic)—that way he would have an excuse to know things he shouldn’t.

Later down the road, as we really loved the storyline, Phil and I worked on the idea of turning the game into an actual TV series script. As such, many further modifications were made by the two of us, and the six seasons were expanded to the normal 22 episodes (although we both agreed it would probably be better as an “HBO-type” series, with fewer but longer, higher-quality episodes). I’d still like to see this happen one day, but you know how these things go…  Thus, much of my notes on the game now reflect the expanded story, and not the original, for good or ill.

GMs Only

Downloads forthcoming.

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