So, in the last few months I’ve mentioned here and there that I was spending my spare time getting a tabletop campaign ready to go. My first time being a game master, and as you’re about to find out, also running a custom tabletop rule system completely of my own design.
Yup. I couldn’t find a good system for what I wanted to do, so instead … I made one. Over a good six-seven month period. And, as of January, I have taken on the role of DM in my DnD group and have been running a campaign playtest. I’ve noticed that other authors have put up their tabletop experiences for fans to read, and since I’ve been posting these on a Reddit sub dedicated to the universe the campaign takes place in anyway, it’s only a little more work to post these here for the enjoyment of those of you that play tabletop.
Now, before we get any further, I have a quick disclaimer: The universe that this tabletop is set in is the Gears of War universe, which is owned by Microsoft. I do not own Gears of War or make any claims to that effect. That’s wholly Microsoft. I’m using the setting for my game because, well, first you can’t copyright imagination and second, Gears of War is one of my favorite universes of all time.
I do, however, own the tabletop system we are using for the campaign, as it is 100% my own creation. See, despite a small demand over the years for a Gears of War tabletop system, or at least something that could work, nothing has ever been made or worked. There’s been no official tabletop release, and attempts to modify other well-known tabletop systems such as actual DnD, GURPS, Pathfinder, or any number of others into the universe has just led to a system that, well, wasn’t Gears. Failures, in other words. Knowing and having read accounts of these attempts, I knew when I volunteered to run the group’s next campaign that I was going to need to build a system myself. New rules, new stats, new everything. And though it is built to bring out the cover-heavy flavor of Gears, it could just as easily be adapted for any other cover-specific game, like X-Com for example (and come to think of it …).
Basically, Gears is owned by Microsoft, and I’m not claiming any ownership there. This homemade rulekit, character sheet set, and everything else? Totally mine.
Right. Disclaimer over. Now for some background on the setting of this campaign (which, don’t worry, I’ll drop for the next session reports). Gears of War is a third-person, cover-based shooter developed originally by Epic Games and published by Microsoft (who now own it) for the Xbox 360. It was a flagship title, kind of a big deal, and spawned two more core sequels as well as a host of spins offs, books, comics, and the like exploring the world. Somewhat unexpectedly, the game builds an incredibly deep story, making heavy use of vertical storytelling to create a really deep world with a lot of background and rich characters and history.
I freaking love it. Gears is an awesome setting. It’d suck to live in, but man is it a compelling setting all the same. Short version of the story is that mankind lives on a planet known as Sera (and they’re likely lost colonists whose ship malfunctioned some 4000 years before the story started), and have a long history of, well, war. The most recent one before the events of the games was the Pendulum wars, an 80-year war over a new miracle fuel source from deep beneath the surface that cemented the planet into two superpowers: The Coalition of Ordered Governments (the COG) and the Union of Independent Republics (the UIR). That war ended when the COG stole orbital-based weapon designs capable of wiping cities off the map from the UIR and deployed them first. A two year peace followed the cease-fire … at which point the planet’s original inhabitants, an alien species that lived deep beneath the ground under the dead crust, decided they’d had it with mankind and boiled to the surface to take their world back, killing billions in what became known as “Emergence Day” or E-Day for short. The COG, caught completely by surprise, fought back, but eventually fired their orbital weapon platforms in a desperate bid to stop the Locust, hitting every single major city and killing billions of Locust alongside a good chunk of what was left of their own population. When that didn’t stop the tide, they found the one spot on the continent that the Locust had trouble digging up under and settled in for a long, desperate, 14-year siege.
Anyway, the games cover that siege pretty well. If you’ve not played them, they are 100% worth your time and enjoyment. But this was the setting I wanted my players to take part in. But I didn’t want them to be Gears, the soldiers of the COG. No, I wanted them to be stranded, the folks who got left behind during the evacuation of Tyrus. The folks who had to scavenge for food, weapons, and ammo while avoiding the Locust. Survival-horror, in other words.
As I said, lacking a good tabletop system for that kind of thing, especially Gears cover-heavy nature, I had to build something of my own.
And on January 9th, our group got back together for the first time after the new year, took up character sheets … and got playing.
Okay, it wasn’t that simple. We had to build characters first. Which, to the surprise of the group and my delight, was actually a lot easier than they’d expected thanks to a lot of careful design work on my part as well as on the character sheets themselves (which have small notes here and there reminding the player how to reach certain stats and explaining various important gameplay elements). Even then, it still took a good hour, as there were some designs to it that ran contrary to the standard tabletop approach (with good reason) and took the players until we were in the game itself to go “Oh, now I see how that works. Cool!”
But the first session had been built with that in mind, and before long they were off. Which means, after all this lead-in, that I can simply tell you guys about this first session.
The session opened with E-day. The players were gathered at an evac point in the city of Tyare, a southern-central city in Tyrus, crowded among all the civilians and chaos. At this point, no one was really sure what was going on yet. The Gears heading the operation were confused and didn’t know who wass attacking, just that the alert had gone out, cities everywhere were being hit, and a general evacuation order had been issued. The party was loaded into an Armadillo, the hatch shut … and the ground started to shake. A moment later their Armadillo was tossed through the air, tumbling over and over and slamming into something, and they all kind of lost track of things for a while.
When they came to, the vehicle was at an odd angle. They proceeded to wake themselves up and see to the driver, a Gear named Andrew who was confused and unable to raise command, but determined to see them safely from the city and to the evac point (a “guide” to demonstrate the game and keep them alive as they acclimated to the new system).
At this moment they got their first taste of the new dice system (which requires a string of successes rather than a classic “pass/fail” system) when the door out, warped and bent, wouldn’t open. One of them attempted to shove it open, and with a little coaxing after their roll, a few other players began battering themselves against the door and, after a few sets of rolls, each getting the door a little more open, managed to get it all the way. The group liked the mechanic, and now having seen how it was used, eagerly began assisting one another in any way they could through the remainder of the session to speed things along.
From there the party spilled out into the ruins of an office building, four stories from the ground, where their battered Armadillo had been thrown. They made their way down to the lobby of the building, where they found some of their fellow evacuees and another Gear, dead from whatever had attacked them. Their investigation of the evac site found a lot more human bodies, civilian and Gear alike, as well as the bodies of a few wretches (a staple, basic Gears of War enemy that leaps that the player), which freaked their characters out. They could tell that the city was still under attack, as they could hear distant gunfire and screams, and smell the smoke, but none of them were sure from what direction, and they decided to follow Andrew to a logistics-supply center a few blocks north in search of working transport.
They got there under a slowly darkening sky, made their way inside, and at the same time, made enough noise to attract a horde of wretches (rolls on my end).
To their delight, there was a heavy supply truck in the center, pulled right up to the loading dock, but it was unloaded and unfueled, and Andrew advised putting as much food, ammo, and fuel on the back as possible (as well as giving it at least half a tank of fuel so that he could get them to a safe place outside the city and back, as he was going to come back for more survivors). Of course, at this point the first wretch showed up, dropping down at the end of the bay, and the group got their first taste of combat. Thankfully, Andrew was more than capable of holding his own, and so most of the party began loading and fueling the vehicle while Andrew held off the wretches, with a few of the players chipping in with their Civil Defense Pistols to a limited effect.
Their attempts to help Andrew made them realize how woefully outmatched they were, and even after the wretches were dead, the group did not want to stick around. They hightailed it out of the city with mostly ammo, some food, and a decent amount of fuel in the back of the truck. Avoiding the freeways, Andrew drove them along back roads and up into the nearby mountains, where he left them at a campsite.
They tried to prevent this, first by trying to convince him that everyone in the city was probably dead, and then by trying to lay claim to the truck. Andrew disagreed, and one party member, fairly playing a panicking civilian, tried to sabotage “their truck” to keep it. Andrew promptly butted him to the ground with his rifle and took off. Still left the group with all the supplies, but took the truck.
The best part? The group was pissed by this development, and loudly proclaimed that they’d earned the truck. I had them hating the COG like stranded do simply by sending the guy back to rescue more survivors.
Better yet, he’d left them at an awesome camp in the mountains, with several cabins. One cabin had a bunk with a bunch of names carved in it, one of them Andrew’s. In revenge, they pulled the bunk out and burned it.
All in all, the session ended with Andrew driving away and the players angry at the COG for leaving them, but well stocked and ready for the time-skip between sessions 1 and 2 (jumping ahead a month and a half to the aftermath of the big hammer strikes that pretty much ended the world).
And get this. They loved it. They loved the setting. They loved the background (I’d opened while they were building their characters with a rundown of Seran history, including the silent era and the Pendulum wars). They loved the combat system and the way they rolled multiple dice based on skills and could compliment one another. They loved the creepiness of the locust horde, their unnamed foe. They had a few suggestions for tweaks, mostly revolving around the weight system and carrying capacity (which I have since made), but they liked the way their stats applied in a varied manner (each primary stat affects a different “class” of weapon) and the way there was a wide variety of approaches to build optimization (in particular, the group’s min-maxer sat looking at the sheet and proclaimed that with two or three routes of growth, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to simply max out one and become all powerful, as that would leave him weak in other areas).
So that was their first session. A bit short, and a bit hand-holding to give them a good idea of how to play, but they loved it all the same and were both surprised and excited to be looking forward to the next session (after our fourth, one player confessed that they’d been certain before we’d started that it was going to bomb and had been dreading playing, only to find to their delight after the first night that it was really fun and well thought-out).
Anyway, here I want feedback. Not on the session or the game (I’ve got the players for that) but on this summary. As I said, I’ve seen other authors posting the summaries of their sessions on their sites and they’ve been well-received. My question is “Are you guys interested in hearing more?” Just, each week, a Wednesday or so feature summarizing what the group went through with the last session and what they did? Or was this, frankly, boring as anything, and you guys have no interest?