Alas Vegas by hyphz
some moments of shimmering brillianceOriginal SA post
Ok, I've put this off long enough, so here we go..
Alas Vegas is probably most infamous for its Kickstarter campaign which overran significantly. But I'm not going to talk about that here! I'm just going to talk about the end product, the book, which is.. well, interesting. By which I mean, it has a lot of things that don't work and seem not to have been thought through, but at the same time it has some moments of shimmering brilliance. It definitely comes off as something that could be used as inspiration for other games at least. It's interesting to note that most of the listed playtesters are well-known RPG designers and celebrities, and while I'm sure they ran great games of this, they probably run great games of practically everything, so the feedback they gave may not have been representative of the norm.
The book is essentially in three sections: the main rules; the Alas Vegas adventure; and a set of smaller adventures by guest authors. The first part of the book is the rules of the game system that's designed for Alas Vegas, the Fugue System. The Fugue System is also available under the Creative Commons license for PWYW download, so I don't have to feel guilty about talking about the entire thing here (the free download is more or less just a copy of the text from Alas Vegas, including the introductory text that was meant for that adventure)
Because the game is based on playing characters with Hollywood-style amnesia, there's no character generation. Each PC (which Fugue calls "personas" for reasons that it spends at least 3 paragraphs explaining, and later takes a bunch of time within the adventure explaining some more, but we'll just say PC) starts with no skills, no name, no nothing. The introduction of the game just consists of each of the players describing what their character looks like, and any distinguishing marks they have. It's assumed they can still remember enough to function and communicate with each other, and they're not allowed to have any distinguishing marks that spell out bits of their past explicitly like tattoos or whatever. After each player talks about their appearance, the player to their left can add one more detail about it, provided it's not disabling. Then, the Dealer (that's the GM) deals Tarot cards to each player until each has a Major Arcana. That's their Signifier, and they'll use it for the rest of the game.
The way players get skills (which are just called "abilities") is by having flashbacks. When a player gets a flashback, they describe a scene from the PCs past, and whatever the PC was doing in that scene, they get that ability now. Flashbacks happen in four circumstances:
* Twice per session a player can trigger one on demand to get an ability of their choice (well, it's once per session in the Vegas books, but twice per session in the CC rules, which seem to be a later version - and this gives a lot more flexibility)
* Once per session a player can trigger a flashback with another PC, and give an ability of their choice to the other player;
* If a PC's Signifier comes up during card play, they immediately get a flashback narrated by the Dealer and get an ability. If the card came up on another character's action, that other PC (or even NPC) is involved in the flashback too;
* If something reminds the PC of something, the Dealer can give them a flashback and an ability - in other words, the Dealer can basically give you flashbacks whenever they want, and potentially write parts of your character's past. I hope you are OK with this as a player, especially if you're going to be playing Vegas, because substantial parts of Vegas require the GM to force flashbacks onto players in order to force the adventure's background into place.
Typical checks are nice and simple. The Dealer assigns a difficulty between 3-12 and draws a card from a full standard Tarot deck. If it's a Minor Arcana and the number is equal to or higher than the difficulty, it's a success. If it's a Major Arcana, the PC succeeds if they've got the ability, and fails badly if they haven't.
The player is then encouraged to use the image on the Tarot card to inspire their description of what happened.. which could be a little tricky. There's history here, again. The vast majority of the art in the book is images of Vegas-themed Major Arcana Tarot cards, and it's actually really good, and you might come to think that at some point there was a Vegas-themed Tarot deck made for use with this game. And you would be right.. except it was never actually printed (as I understand they're talking about potentially getting it printed now). So as it is, the player has to map images on traditional Ryder Waite style tarot cards to events in a modern city. They're allowed to be symbolic and metaphorical about it, mind you, so it's probably still doable, but a bit more awkward that it might have been intended to be.
There is also an issue in that there are four Minor Arcana cards of each suit which don't have numbers. It's not clear if the GM is supposed to take these as having values 11-14, or as all having value 10 as they do in the Contested Action rules. If they take them as having value 10, then higher difficulty tasks are impossible without an Ability and much riskier even then, and the rules don't really say which to do.
The system is also quite harsh. At the lowest difficulty 3, without an ability, you're looking at a 61% chance of success (48 cards out of 78). Each extra point of difficulty disqualifies 4 cards from succeeding - one from each minor suit - which is a change of 4/78, which is very close to 4/80 which is 1/20. So it's roughly equivalent to rolling 6 plus the difficulty, or above, on a d20. But it's quite difficult to judge difficulties once you've realized that, given that a 3 is supposed to be the easiest difficulty possible, which is a far cry from the "5 on a d20" difficulty that is the lowest in many systems.
If you've got the ability, then the Major Arcana become successes, which is a flat bonus of 22/78, or roughly 28% or a +5 or +6 on our hypothetical d20. That means abilities are very polarising, presumably in order to encourage PCs to have flashbacks whenever anything too difficult comes up.
Combat's a bit trickier. It's played as a slightly mangled version of Blackjack. Each PC or NPC on either side gets two cards dealt to them. If it's a mass combat, it's suggested that the GM break it up into smaller combats between individual members in order to simplify things. Like regular Blackjack, the idea is to get as close as you can to 21 without going over. Minor Arcana are worth their number except for the face cards which are worth 10 and the Aces which are worth 1 or 11 as in regular Blackjack. Major Arcana are worth their number or 10, whichever you choose. The Wheel has number 10, so it's always worth 10; tough. The Fool has number 0, and can be played for zero if you really want. The World has number 21, but a hand with only one card is illegal, so you have to play it as 10 or you'd immediately bust - unless the other card in the hand is the Fool played as 0, which creates an uber-critical success.
Players involved in a single combat then take turns clockwise, with the GM going last. On their turn, a player can either a) play one of the cards from their hand to the table, b) "twist" a card from the deck onto the table, or c) stick, if they have a valid hand. If their table cards go over 21, they're stymied and out of the action for the rest of the round. This continues until either everyone sticks or someone gets 21, in which case everyone else gets a last chance to use their cards in hand to make 21, and then the hand ends. Note that you don't have to actually play the two cards you're dealt with to start with - you could potentially twist your whole hand, although I'm not sure why you'd do that, but hey.
As for using Abilities, well, there's a fourth option. If d) you describe using an ability, then the Dealer gives you a twist card, but instead of going straight to the table you can replace a card already on the table with it. Unfortunately, the game rules for this are very confusing. In one place they state you can keep the wild card until you need it, in another they state you have to play it right away; and it's also not clear if you get the wild card at the start of the combat or partway through when you invoke a relevant ability. Because it's the action on your turn, it can't save you from being stymied if you go bust to a twist.
Once the round is over, whoever had the best hand wins; Dealer wins ties. Highest hand is best; if there's a tie, least cards is best. Also, the nature of the hand determines what you can do. A high hand that's less than 21 can gain the upper hand, or knock someone down for a round, or potentially do something that ends the contest but doesn't knock anyone out - although how you decide this isn't mentioned. A 21 with more than 2 cards can knock an opponent out or otherwise take them completely out of the action. A Blackjack can do the same, but can also kill; a regular Blackjack can kill if you have a weapon, a Blackjack with 1 Major Arcana can kill with your bare hands, a Blackjack with both Major Arcana can kill or incapacitate all your opponents, and a Blackjack with the Fool and the World can do anything without justification. The book suggests pulling the sun out of the sky and throwing it down the opponent's throat. Unfortunately, it kinda assumes you're going to do something that's tied into the contest you're in, as opposed to just bypassing the entire problem. Why throw the sun down the Vault guard's throat if you can just make a one-way magic portal into the vault appear?
So, this sounds decent, but has at least one potential problem. Since it's a game of turn taking with active involvement from the opponent, it's a bit difficult to run raw probabilities, but what you might have noticed with the hand values is that there's 5 cards for every suit which are worth 10 (the actual 10 plus the 4 face cards) plus all the Major Arcana are potentially worth 10 too. That's 42 tens in a 78 card deck, or 53% - the majority of the deck! So, yea. You're going to get a ton of 20s. Since a 20 doesn't butter many parsnips on the damage track, it presumably wants you to try and twist your way into a 21, but that's kind of risky. Moreover, since the Dealer wins ties, there's a big chance of the dealer winning on tied 20s, and it's not very clear what happens if they do; the wording states that on a winning tied 20 you can "try to terminate the contested action", so if it's an NPC doing that, who decides if the attempt succeeds and what happens if they do?
As you've probably noticed, it is also bloody deadly. A Blackjack can come at any time and kill a PC without any advance warning. In fact, Blackjacks as the strongest hand has a general pacing issue; it means that the moment the players see a third card go down on a round, they're safe. You would ideally want long, contested hands to be the most tense, but here they're the absolute reverse - if no-one has a blackjack, everyone's eventually walking away.
And on top of this, the game does advise that the Dealer shouldn't kill PCs anyway, because thanks to the flashbacks system and its session-based timing it isn't really possible to replace a PC in the middle; the player can get a new PC, but they'll have no flashback history, and no way to catch up. The standby is to give the PC a major wound that would kill them over time, but won't in the time remaining in the adventure. Oh, and by the way, the only rules for healing are that wounds heal realistically for the world the game is set in - so it could easily be tricky having to avoid the PCs leave their severely wounded friend behind.
That's more or less it for the rules. Let's talk about Vegas!
Now, what I'm going to do first is to give you something the book never gives you, which is an overview of the setting and the plot. This never appears in the book because of one of the key gimmicks of the game: the rotating GM. The campaign is fixed to be 4 sessions long, and in each of those 4 sessions a different player is intended to take over as the GM. It's a nice idea. Unfortunately, it leads to the following section:
No, no, it's not going to be better if the GM genuinely doesn't know the answers to questions the players have about the setting, because they might not be asking those questions just out of curiosity, they might be fundamental to the actions they're going to take. And if the GM can't make stuff up then.. well, they're going to have to just block the PCs, and that's difficult.
But the worst statement here is "this isn't one of those indie games". But if you don't want to be "one of those indie games" where improvisation is important, then you have to put in the content to define things precisely enough to play without improv. And Vegas absolutely doesn't do that - some content is just missing, and some is left until the later sessions, leaving the earlier GMs floundering.
So, anyway, fair warning. I'm about to sum up the setting, and then we'll be going through the whole adventure, so here be huge honkin' spoilers. If you ever think you're going to do stuff with Alas Vegas other than run it in the traditional single-GM mode (and there's no reason why you shouldn't do that) then look away now. (Well, unless you're cool with playing hard narrative even though you already know what's going to happen.)
Seriously, big spoilers! Last chance!
Ok. Here's the big reveal: the "Vegas" the PCs find themselves in isn't the real Vegas. It's hell. Literally. The PCs are all damned souls in hell. The four major casinos - the Cups, the Swords, the Wands and the Coins - are all run by demon lords; the biggest casino of them all, the Wheel Of Fortune, is run by Satan himself. Most of the regular tourists around hell-Vegas are other damned souls, and the "locals" are straight up demons, although they're nowhere near as powerful as the demon lords who run the big sites. This is normally revealed at the end of the second session, although the book does mention that the players will probably have worked it out or guessed at it by then and it isn't really a problem if they do (and that's quite right), so at least some credit for that.
Most of Hell-Vegas consists of, well, caricatures of Vegas stuff - smaller casinos, shows, hotels, and so on, or burned out relics where such things used to be (in a town full of demons and the damned there tends to be quite a bit of infighting). If the players want to wander around and explore, well.. tough luck. There's no map, no-one will give them a map, and the default action if the PCs wander off is for the GM to declare them lost and tell them they need to ask directions back to some place they know. Even though they're lost in a city full of casinos and hotels and stuff where they could take plenty of actions in spite of not knowing where they are. I see what they're going for - it's the "Sherlock never walked" rule, where a setting that would be too big to manage is simplified by breaking it down into identifiable locations - but the system of just "getting lost" to enforce it doesn't really work so well.
There's two other big secrets to the setting. The first is the nature of guns, and the second is the nature of gambling chips. I'll do those in order.
Guns in Vegas are weapons for demons. There's no stores selling them, no shooting ranges, no nothing - and the guns themselves don't fire bullets, they channel the energy of the demon firing them. If a tourist somehow gets hold of a gun, they won't be able to fire it, and if it's found on them they'll at least get it taken away, or end up in much worse trouble. Well, with one exception. It's mentioned that a tourist can fire a gun if they have enough knowledge to use their own spiritual energy for the shot - which often requires some kind of mystic knowledge ability - but the shot will be weak and it will leave them exhausted and seriously screwed up. Firing a second time in a day will kill them.
The first problem with this is that this is only really explained near the start of the third session, but the PCs potentially meet someone who knows about it in the first session, which can leave that session's GM floundering - or more likely, having to make something up which a later GM might have to contradict. The second problem - a much bigger one - is there's no guidelines at all as to what having a gun actually does. In the combat system you can still only kill on a Blackjack, so all a gun does is to probably count as "an appropriate weapon", but it's no more effective than any other appropriate weapon. There are no guidelines for range, and while you might enforce it by common sense, a gun is then no better than say a crossbow or a bow and arrow, which the savvier tourists have worked out that they can possess and use.
To make this even more confusing, there is a section later in the adventure where the PCs get the ability to use guns, and it states that a single shot will kill a tourist, but a demon will take two or three (and the demon lords just laugh); but how this interacts with the combat system isn't clear at all. Does it means that your first shot with a gun against a demon can hit on a 21, but the second one requires a blackjack? There seems to be an assumption here that you can shoot someone just by making a skill check, which is awkward because there's no rules for NPCs making skill checks, so presumably they just shoot players whenever they like, which screws with the combat system... except they can't shoot players whenever they like because you're not supposed to kill the PCs! Ugh. Anyway.
Next, gambling chips. Now that we know that Vegas is hell I'm sure I don't have to bother telling you that chips are souls. I probably also don't have to tell you that in one of the major casinos - the Wheel, the one run by Satan himself - there's an imposing black elevator which you can only ride if you have a million chips. Nobody knows where it leads, but it's the only possible way out, and nobody who rides it ever comes down again. Most people in Vegas only consider it a rumor at best, but it's about the only hope they have around here.
What's nifty, though, are two twists put on this. First of all, the chips are only kind-of souls. Whenever a damned soul "dies" in Vegas, they disappear and their body transforms into casino chips (if you manage to kill a demon, it doesn't turn into chips - it just lies there dead). The number of chips created varies based on how many people the victim "killed" - physically or metaphorically - in life. So although there might be multiple chips created, they're all from the same soul. What do they really count, then? Memories. That's why your PCs have been having flashbacks all the time - they're instrumental to Hell. Anyone who's been killed in Vegas is trapped within their chips, endlessly reliving their darkest acts from both sides.
Everything in Vegas is paid for in chips, but also, the demons actually melt down and grind up chips to make the raw material to build the buildings and structures and general stuff in Vegas. Having your soul in a chip, or chips, that's ground up and used to make a building is unpleasant. All the memories mix together, leaving the souls of the damned constantly reliving their own and other's acts of evil, from the victim's sides as well. And either way, there's no escape once you've become chips. Welcome to Hell. Get down on the floor and give me infinity.
So, yea, that's actually really cool - linking up the game mechanic with the plot in that way. It's also very unlikely that anyone except the GM of the final session will really understand it, given that the PCs just get to see some vague evidence of it while they're on an involuntary peyote bender.
The second really nifty aspect is chip denominations. See, to ride that black elevator, you have to have a million chips, and that means carrying them. They're physical chips. They have weight and mass. No-one's going to be able to carry a million singles. And since the only way new chips get minted is when a damned soul dies, and the number that appear is determined by their previous actions, higher value chips are actually relatively rare - and therefore exponentially more valuable than their face value suggests. No one will give you straight change up into the highest values. Which means that something as simple as the ability to carry chips suddenly creates a whole new level of intrigue, as well as explaining why people in Vegas aren't particularly keen to just go around beating up random damned souls for chips; even if you could somehow peg a million people before the demons got you, you'd probably just end up with a couple of ton of chips you could never carry around.
On the other hand, it does walk into the usual big problem with fictional Hells. Remember, the PCs here are damned souls, not Orpheus or anything like that. So why the heck would Hell ever let any of them, well, be a protagonist? And once you know the secrets, that becomes even weirder. What happens when you ride that black elevator? You get to play Satan at Blackjack. If you lose, you become a demon. If you win, you.. well, you get out of Hell, but even the ending of the adventure never explains quite what happens after that, because the idea that Satan could send you to Heaven was just too daft for even this cosmology. Why does Satan offer this deal? Because "if you can get to a million chips, you're Satan's kind of person." So Satan's kind of person is.. not the worst sinners, but the people who kill the worst sinners without being that bad themselves? Huh. And hey, let's not even get into the religious implications of the idea that if you're evil, you go to Hell, but if you're evil enough you go to Hell but then get to kick a bunch of people's asses and become a rad demon.
Ok, now we're going to have an overview of what's going on into the adventure. Again, this is really massive spoiler territory, and while knowing the above stuff about Hell might not break the game, this absolutely will. So turn away if you're at all unsure about being spoiled.
ABANDON SURPRISE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!
Still here? Here's what's going down. Satan is kinda sick of the Vegas version of hell, and especially how it encourages the demon lords to fight each other, so he wants to tear the thing down and go back to a more traditional kind of hell. Even he's not powerful enough to just shift the whole landscape of hell alone, though, so he's got a plan. His plan is: a) get Hades, the old Lord of the Underworld who he took over from, to help (on the grounds that Hades would probably prefer a traditional hell too), and b) get an innocent person trapped in hell, which provides a ton of extra power. Unfortunately, innocent people don't normally go to hell; and if they somehow do, then Satan has no power over them, and a rather peeved angel will show up to try to help them escape. The angel has no problem dealing with demons, but straight up slaying mortals - even damned ones - isn't their style. So what Satan needs is some bunch of mortal rubes to do an old-style soul sacrifice of an innocent, and then bring that innocent to him in the Wheel of Fortune. Hello, PCs.
One of the moments of shimmering brilliance, though, is that this isn't the traditional "haha, you've been following my plans all along!" railroad adventure. There's a twist. Hades is only pretending to help; what he really wants is to take Hell back. And he knows that managing all this stuff - as well as dealing with the angel - will weaken Satan, to the point where he could be killed (or at least knocked out of action) with a sufficiently powerful weapon even inside Hell. Satan's on his guard against Hades, of course, but Hades also knows that and realizes the people to do the job would be people who Satan wouldn't suspect - such as the bunch of alleged rubes he's getting to help with his plan. Plus, once Satan is down, Hades won't need the innocent anymore, and so can give those folks the opportunity to be responsible for getting an innocent person out of Hell, which can only be good for them in the cosmic scheme of things.
So, yea. That's.. well, that's pretty cool, actually. It's a nice twist on the "the PCs were part of the bad guy's plan all along" cliche to say that actually they were part of two bad guys' plans and now they get control of how those plans are going to go. Although they don't really get much control because, honestly, who's really going to side with Satan? Plus, there's a random factor involved. This is still Vegas for now, after all.
On the other hand, it does have the universal problem with these plots that if the PCs die, the whole plan goes to shit, yet Satan and Hades don't feel the need to make any attempt to prevent this happening because they would succeed and ruin any tension in the adventure. Huh.
So, we'll do this like the adventure wants us to. Four sessions, four posts. Then we'll start to look at the extra adventures in back.
Act 1Original SA post
WARNING: SPOILERS ALL THROUGH THIS POST.
So! First session. Here we go. Everyone wakes up in the desert, naked, dragging themselves out of shadow graves, and scarcely remembering their own names. Looking into the distance, they see the city, a red beam of light stretching up from the centre of it up to the stars. Time for the PCs to do character generation, describing each other's looks and setting up signifiers. The GM does this too, because they're going to have a PC in the later sessions. There is also one more character with them who's going to follow them around. Who's that? Well, that's the GM's real character, because the GM's PC is going to get killed in this adventure. Ok. Let's hope the PCs don't leave them behind or anything like that.
Ok, hi, everybody, this desert sucks, and it's deserted, and it's dark, but it feels like something's watching us, and what the heck was that? It was a nuclear explosion, about 20 miles to the north. And if the players look over there, then silhouetted against the afterimage of the blast.. is a standing human figure, which disappears.
If the PCs investigate this, they find nothing. They can't find the figure. Amazingly the adventure has a footnote giving the tonnage of nuclear device that would produce that explosion in case one of the characters decides to flashback to being a nuclear scientist, but it won't be useful information at all (funnily enough, it wasn't really a nuclear bomb). In fact, this comes up a ton of times in the adventure: the PCs decide to have a flashback to acquire an obvious skill, and the adventure notes - in an almost gloating fashion - that it won't actually be any use and they just wasted one of their scarce flashbacks. This is the first one of those.
The PCs are assumed to trog through the desert towards the city, stepping on sharp stones, tripping on buried roots, feeling night-things scuttling in the dark, banging their toes on rocks, and so on. At some point, one of the other books might tell me how a GM can actually create the feeling of a longish, creepy journey without either boring the players or skipping. But not this one. After that, the PCs see an abandoned car, nose-down in a creek, with the headlights still on. Strangely, the adventure says that the car is "not like anything they recognise", but then assumes that the PCs will naturally try to pull it out and drive it, so presumably they know they can do that? Huh. Anyway, it's time to try to dig the car out of the ditch and get it started, and probably for everyone to have flashbacks to fixing or driving cars, and time to make our first skill checks.
Does the adventure tell us how difficult this ought to be? Nope. Ok, Mr or Ms GM, rate hotwiring a car on a scale from 3-12. It's not supposed to be challenging, but on the other hand, stealing a car shouldn't really be easy, should it? Let's say 6, huh? Cool. Assuming the PCs all take flashbacks, there's then only a 1/64 chance that they all fail and are stuck out in the desert permanently. The PCs will get to drive off wondering about, hey, they're all car mechanics, who'da thunk it? And.. uh-oh. Is that something coming?
While the PCs are trying to deal with the car, humanlike emaciated figures burst out from the scrub. These are the Lost, people who've been forced out of the city and just try to survive without any support. It's time for a practice combat! Hey, look, everyone's been in a fight before. That's super helpful. It's also potentially both of everyone's self-directed session flashbacks used up, so good luck with that - although hopefully they've been giving these flashbacks to each other.
Now, originally I was thinking of doing this as a playthrough F&F with sample characters, but that gets very difficult to do after a while, but I did actually draw out this combat with some simulated Tarot cards, playing the PCs and the NPCs the best I could.
Here's how it went, with our four PCs - Alice, Bob, Chris, and Diana - against 3 Lost.
Hand 1 - Alice vs Lost 1 - Alice knocks the Lost down temporarily with 20 vs a bust.
Hand 1 - Chris vs Lost 2 - Chris knocks the Lost unconscious with a multi-card 21.
Hand 1 - Bob and Diana vs Lost 3 - Bob, Diana, and the Lost all get to 20, then start to twist to avoid the tie, resulting in Bob and Diana both going bust and being knocked down temporarily by the Lost.
Hand 2 - Alice and Chris vs Lost 3 - The Lost kills Alice with a Single Arcana Blackjack.
Hand 2 - Bob, Diana, and Lost 1 all get up.
Hand 3 - Diana vs Lost 1 - Diana is knocked down by the Lost going bust to escape a tied 20.
Hand 3 - Bob and Chris vs Lost 3 - Chris tears the Lost apart with a Double Arcana Blackjack.
Hand 4 - Bob and Chris vs Lost 1 - Chris smashes the Lost's head in with a Single Arcana Blackjack.
So the "example" fight went for rather a long time (remember, each of those hands is a full Blackjack round), had several PCs staggering around and killed a PC. Now, Alice was the GM's PC and supposed to die this session, so that's ok - but if they hadn't been, that would have been a PC at least seriously wounded or incapacitated. In the first fight, with unskilled opponents. There are more to come.
So, we assume the PCs beat or kill the Lost. They can loot them if they want, they have tattered clothes and makeshift weapons. But as soon as the PCs look away, their bodies disappear, and turn into a couple casino chips each. The PCs will likely have questions about this, and the GM doesn't get told the answers. Into the car we go, uh-oh, the lights are getting dim, the battery must be going. Phut phut phut, the car heads off to the city and the engine blows about half a mile outside the city. Let's really hope that the PCs went to the city as opposed to, say, to investigate the nuclear explosion. If they did that they're proper fucked.
Anyway, the car's broken down just in the right place to bring the PCs to their next encounter, which is a construction zone. Big dug foundation, concrete pilings, ineffective floodlights, chain-link fence, an unlocked gate, and two big guys burying a third, smaller human figure in the setting concrete of the building. You know the dr.. oh, wait. We should probably do something about that, huh? If the PCs decide to just sod off and leave them, then they briefly see someone standing in the shadows watching them before driving away, but the PCs can leave with no real effect.
Players aren't like that, of course. Hopefully, they'll go to the rescue. And everything will get really confusing.
So, here's the deal. The guys doing the burying are locals - demons, in fact, but this GM doesn't know that. That means they automatically get a wildcard in anything they try and do, including fighting. Now, here's a summary of the facts the adventure gives the GM about this scene:
- They aren't particularly interested in killing the PCs, but if it comes down to a fight they'll fight back.
- They have guns, but they're in their jackets which are hung a way out of the pit where they're doing the burying.
- They will not pursue the PCs if they flee.
- If the PCs are winning, the demons will attempt to shoot the person in the concrete and flee.
- If the demons get away, they will tell their superiors at the casino they work for about the PCs, which is - quote - "uh oh".
- The demons would rather throw their guns into the liquid concrete than allow the PCs to get hold of them.
So, I think we get here some odd situation where if the PCs flee, or let a demon get away, they're likely to be screwed because they'll be reported to a casino boss (actually, they won't be, but this GM doesn't know that). Also, the demons don't want to use their guns because they're difficult for them to get to, unless they're losing, in which case they have to go get them somehow to shoot the person in the concrete and then destroy the gun, but for some reason not just shoot the PCs. The demons are also perfectly aware about the thing where non-demons can't fire guns, so why they feel they need to throw their guns away is not clear, but the GM isn't aware of this (the text just says that if a PC gets hold of a gun, it won't fire, can't be disassembled and can't be reloaded) so setting up a nice contradiction.
Time for another fight. I played this one out, too. Another PC got killed in the very first hand by a demon pulling an Arcana Blackjack. Presumably this time, they weren't killed, just seriously wounded, but at the same time the GM would be stuck with a dilemma: rule that the wound doesn't affect them (and let the players know they aren't really in any danger) or rule that it incapacitates them until it's healed. The GM is likely to be tempted to do the latter, because they don't know much about the setting. If they do that, the PC is probably fucked.
Anyway, assuming (and it's a pretty big assumption) that everything went well, the PCs can pull the woman they were burying in the concrete out. This is Rebecca Oh, and she's an asshole who won't tell them anything or have them do anything. She apparently just wants to wash off the gunk and leave. How she leaves? Well, we're not sure, but if the PCs ask her to walk with them, there's going to be issues with why she'd refuse and also with what happens if she doesn't refuse, because if the PCs walk into town with her then everything's going to be totally different.
Oh, by the way, if the PCs don't get involved here, then that someone watching them before driving away? In that scenario, that was Rebecca Oh. We kinda need her around. And yea, we're kinda buggered if the demons shot her in the concrete, or if the PCs killed her for some ridiculous reason.
We pull up to the edge of town. It's late night. The street-lamps are unearthy yellow, the people are down-and-out, nobody really cares to help them. They can't find a police station. They can't find a hospital (tough luck if you got maimed in that fight). If they try to report anything anywhere, they'll get laughed at. Oh, and if anyone has a flashback to knowing their way around Vegas, they waste their flashback because this isn't that Vegas. Thanks a bunch. The PCs can mope around a bit until the GM throws them the next bone, which is a soup cart. Yes, your guys are hungry. The soup lady can tell them that they're in Vegas, but doesn't know a whole lot about anything else, other than the fact that having already gotten in a fight is a bad thing. She can give them soup, she can give them clothes, and she can send them to our first quest-giver, Nate the bar owner. If the PCs ask why she doesn't look after the Lost too, she'll say the city "reminds them of things they don't want to remember". This is foreshadowing.
Off to Nate's bar. Hope we don't try to go anywhere else. They can drink if they want, although they might not know that they can pay with casino chips (the barmaid will tell them). And they can also read the local newspaper, and this is another highlight of the adventure, because the local newspaper has a comic that's actually illustrated in the real book, and they're amusingly deadpan and actually by John Kovalic. Also, the first one's the best one. Here you go:
At some point (yea, this adventure really does love to do the "leave the PCs idle and unable to achieve anything until they get bored of stuff, then the next event happens" thing, which I have far too often seen result in the players learning to skip idle moments), there'll be a fight. The point of this fight is to have Nate show up and hit the fighting drunks with a chair so that we know he's a badass. If the PCs do get involved then.. well, another PC might end up incapacitated here, potentially making this quite the comedy of errors. Oh, yes, the other point is to get Nate to pay attention to the PCs, so let's hope they did join in the fight and they did well, which they can't really control.
So Nate is our first Mr. Exposition who can tell them the basic rules of Vegas - that there's five big casinos that control everything, their bosses rule the area, that the economy run on casino chips, and so on. He also tells them that he won't tell them much more, because information is valuable. At some point, three guys in suits come in and ask Nate a bunch of questions. This also doesn't go anywhere. Again, the point here is to get the PCs to ask Nate to help, in which case, he says he'll put them up and introduce them in exchange for them helping with a few tasks he has. A-ha. The PCs go off, have some rest, get cleaned up, then come back down to the bar next morning where Nate has an exclamation mark over his head.
First mission: take some chips from Nate, and deliver them to the Cornucopia casino, basically just to show that they can be trusted. The GM is also told to tell the players that if they break Nate's trust, he'll tell everyone not to trust them and then they're fucked, so yea, let's go to the Cornucopia, huh? And this is as simple as it seems. Go to the Cornucopia, give the money to the guy there who says they're "Nate's dues", then go back again. He might be vaguely interested if the PCs mention how they arrived, but doesn't really say anything. If the PCs try to go anywhere else, they get lost and have to ask their way back to a place they know. They can also hang out and gamble in the Cornucopia if they want to - there's a general section on gambling that basically says, yea, the PCs can do it if they want, it's just regular casino gambling, you're probably going to lose, and oddly, in this Vegas it isn't really any fun, and nobody they meet gambling is having any fun.
Oh, there's one side thing the players can do. They can see an advert posted by the guy who owned the car they drove into town in. If they contact him, he wants the tape that was in the glovebox (which helpfully wasn't mentioned in the initial description of the car, so I hope the PCs didn't open the glovebox at that time). He'll give them 300 chips for it. He won't say why, or indeed say anything at all. If the PCs play the tape, it's a crazy person rambling about Hell, but doesn't give any useful information in exactly the same way that everything doesn't.
Back we go to Nate's. He has a question mark over his head, now, and we've unlocked a few more dialog options. Nate has heard about a kidnapping last night. If the PCs tell him about Rebecca, he can tell them her name, and which casino she came from (the Swords, as it turns out), and basically that it means there's about to be a power shift. This is also very common. Plenty of people the PCs will meet will tell them there's signs that a big change is coming, but not what it is, or how it's going to happen, or - again - anything that the PCs can actually use to inform their actions.
Anyway. Next quest. Go out to a guy called Bob Munker's and collect a debt from him. No use killing him, but a bit of blunt persuasion is not necessarily out of the question. If he hasn't got the money, take valuable stuff from him, especially old stuff. Nate can give them a car and weapons if they want, but (of course) no guns. Off we drive. Like usual, if the PCs try to go anywhere that isn't Bob's or somewhere they know, they get lost and need to ask directions.
Bob's house. Front door's locked and no-one's answering, and the windows won't open because something's blocking them. That's because Bob is trying to dig a tunnel from his basement into the counting room of one of the casinos, which is about as stupid an idea as it sounds. Bob also has some things to trouble the PCs. The first of these is three guard dogs. Time for another round of ties, but what makes it more worrying is the following text in the adventure:
The dogs will not all attack the same persona, they will each attack different ones. This should make them easier to deal with.
Err. No. It doesn't work like that, remember? The hands are always two-player contested, so there's no way for a PC to attack a dog without it attacking them back; either they play a hand against it or they don't. Also, if one of the dogs gets a Blackjack, someone's going down either way. All this changes is that if two of them get Blackjacks, two PCs go down instead of one. Uh.
The second thing that Bob has that will trouble the PCs is a gun. Yes, this is our fellow early in the adventure who has a gun and knows how to use it. He may shoot the PCs, but if he does, it's a weak shot and only bruises them because he's weak and exhausted. The PCs may well ask him for explanations, or show him the guns from the guys at the construction site. Tough shit. The GM at this point doesn't know any of the setting information about guns, and if the PCs take Bob's gun, the only explanation is that it only had one bullet and now it's out. Yea. This could well be a huge derail. Also, Bob might be the first person to tell the PCs about the black elevator and the million chips thing, because that's what he wants to do when he's dug into the counting-house.
Bob doesn't have any money or chips. If he's pressed, he'll give the PCs some books to pay his debt. The adventure goes into a lot of detail about what is in the books, but they all either don't make sense or are in code. As usual, plenty of stuff that's vaguely creepy but doesn't empower the PCs to actually do anything. Also:
If any locals catch the PCs with [the gun], they will be hauled in front of the Head of Security at the relevant casino. We will meet a Head of Security next time, because it would be better if the personae don't meet one this time.
It would be better if they don't because the GM is left floundering in the dark if they do. This section of the adventure says this kind of thing a ton - the PCs shouldn't go to the Strip either because "it's high level and they're low level" - which is not only not true (the Strip isn't dangerous when the PCs get there and they don't meaningfully level up before going), but there's literally no reason this would be the case in the setting.
Anyway, the PCs head back to Nate's. Maybe they go some other places, nothing happens, they get lost, yadda yadda, Nate's. Nate will get a call, say something is odd, and send the PCs to the Cornucopia with the books. When they get there, they meet the guy they met before, and then they get to meet his boss.
Hey, Rebecca. What, those guys shot you in the concrete? Well, here you are anyway. Huh.
End of session.
So, this reads really well in the book, but it sounds like it'd be a serious pain to run. It's obviously mostly trying to build atmosphere, which is a laudable goal, but at the same time it's so heavily tracked that players could easily get frustrated at finding more and more abstract atmosphere and nothing they can work with. It's already creepy, how many times do they need to be reminded? And, yea, the combat's far too lethal and there's a not insignificant risk of one of the PCs getting mangled so badly they end up either being left to recover at Nate's or learning that actually Nate has bugger all reason to allow that and presumably getting dumped in the desert. Incidentally, nobody will tell them that Vegas is hell. Even the GM doesn't know that yet. Which, as we will see shortly, makes no sense whatsoever.
Act 2Original SA post
WARNING: SPOILERS ALL THROUGH THIS POST.
Second chapter. This opens with a few words to the new GM, amongst them an apology for the first chapter being rather railroaded. It does state that the second episode is looser, but that at the same time, you have to make sure the PCs reach a certain point in order to hand over to the next GM. If you have to, you might need to GM an extra session to get things to the correct point.
Second bit of GM advice: start using GM-initiated flashbacks to link the players together. Make them appear in each other's flashbacks, relate events in them to each other, and also start to drop hints that actually they weren't necessarily nice people. Knowing how players prefer to play heroic characters this could very well be rather unpopular with the players, but of course it's necessary to set up the "this is hell" reveal, which is going to happen this session.
So, anyway. Here's Rebecca. She's still an asshole. She won't answer any questions about what happened to her. The reason she's called the PCs is because she actually works for one of the major casinos, the Swords, and she's heard that someone is planning a major raid on the vaults of one of the casinos - which could take that casino down - but doesn't know which one, and she needs to know if it's hers or not. In addition to keeping an ear to the ground, she has one other thing for them to do: head into the desert, catch a coyote, and toss it into the same foundations where she was going to be buried. As before, she'll provide a car.
But this time, as the PCs are leaving, they also get handed an envelope by a security guard. The envelope contains a note that reads: "If you bring my book, I will help you. Come tonight. H."
So, the PCs are off to hunt a coyote. There's relatively little guidance for this, except:
This coyote (and there is only one coyote they are trying to catch, the same one over and over) is not in fact the common coyote canis latrans, or even the less common carnivorous vulgaris. Think of it more as a roadrunner. Who's the coyote? The personae are. Beep beep, assholes.
This is supposed to be a comedic moment to make up for the horrific moment that's coming up later this session. So, yea, I'm sure there are GMs who could make a drawn-out process of failing to catch a coyote fun, and players who might enjoy the process rather than getting frustrated and annoyed, but I don't know many of those players and I don't think I'm one of those GMs. And also, yes, it's yet another "nothing happens until the players get bored, then the next story beat comes on", and as you might guess the next story beat is that they catch the coyote. If they decide not to bother, go back and crash and tell Rebecca the coyotes around here are ridiculous, she'll be very unimpressed, and they will also completely derail the plot.
Because what we need them to do is this: the PCs will catch the coyote. The PCs will take the coyote to the construction site, but it's different now. All the lights are off, there's two figures talking in the base of the pit. There are also guards hiding in the shadows. Guards with guns. The PCs will sneak up to the pit to hear what the two figures are saying, and it turns out, they're two of the bosses of major casinos. Straight up demon lords. They are talking about what happened here last night, and they have a bunch of points to drop:
- The construction site is for the building of a new casino.
- The charming folks attempting to bury Rebecca Oh in the foundations were attempting to curse that casino.
- "A Pikadon" has arrived in the city, and is looking for something.
- These guys have also heard about the robbery Rebecca told the PCs about.
- They really want to know if the three events are connected.
- The three events together are an attack on "me, you, and the Swords". This means it came from "the Cups, the Wheel, or the Hermit."
That last line should inform the players that these are the bosses of the Coins and the Wands. The PCs have not heard of the Hermit before. But they do have that note in their pockets signed "H". Hmm.
As for the "Pikadon"? Well, they won't know it now, but that's the angel who's come to protect the Innocent, and that's what the nuclear blast was - the Pikadon arriving. Half the reason why everyone's interested in the PCs is that they arrived at the same time as that happened, and since Pikadons hardly ever show up, nobody really knows that the PCs aren't the Pikadon themselves, nor whether or not they're connected to it. "Pikadon" isn't a Biblical name or anything like that, it's Japanese psychopoeia for a nuclear explosion (basically "flash-boom"). Why the heck is a Vegas-themed hell using Japanese psychopoeia? God only knows. It does make me think what a hellish Akihabara would be like, though. (Probably just the actual Akihabara.)
At that point, the two bosses start to walk away, and the PCs move to find out what they're saying. At that point, the GM has to make a fake draw and then declare by fiat that they've been spotted and are promptly charged at by a terrifyingly huge man charging from the edge of the pit. Remember how they said we'd meet a Head of Security next time? This is him. His name's Bullneck. He's not nice. He's big. He's got a gun. But he's a security guy and he isn't actually interesting in killing them. The PCs either run away, or he has a threatening conversation with them where he recognizes the clothes coming from the soup lady and mentions he can smell something strange on them, and tells them to get the hell out before he kills them, and then they run away. If they don't, he backhands them across the face, but..
(I mean he'll try, do it with the cards, but he's a local and his hands are like baseball mitts)
See, the problem is that this guy is going to appear a bunch of times this session as a major threat, but.. well, he's another local. He gets a wildcard. He's not any stronger than the guys who were at the construction zone last time were, and there were two of them. The Fugue book does mention that a really exceptional individual might get two wildcards, but the adventure doesn't list Bullneck as such as individual. I'm just intensely amused by the idea of Bullneck trying to slap a PC and then the PC pulling a Fool+World combo and feeding him to the moon.
Ok, time for secrets. Bullneck is not letting the PCs go because he is nice. Bullneck has smelled something strange on them: recently poured concrete, and Rebecca Oh's perfume. He's just deduced there is a not-insignificant chance that these are the guys who tried to bury Rebecca at the site. He's letting the PCs go because he's going to have them tailed, and assuming their next step is to go and investigate the note from "H" (who is indeed the Hermit) then he'll start telling his bosses and their bosses that the PCs did attack Rebecca and they are working with the Hermit.
Now, let's see all the ways this can go wrong.
- If the PCs attack or kill Bullneck, then all the other guards on site will see what's going down and open fire. The adventure simply states that this is an almost certain TPK so "don't let it happen".
- If the PCs don't bother eavesdropping on the conversation, they never hear about any of this stuff, Bullneck never follows them, and the next section of the adventure doesn't make any sense.
- If the PCs eavesdrop on the conversation but don't move to pursue the bosses when they walk away, then ditto; Bullneck never spots them, never follows them, and the next section of the adventure doesn't make any sense.
- If the PCs had any flashbacks where they remember being stealthy, tough shit, it's still a fake fiated draw to avoid being spotted.
If the PCs decide to come back later, the lights are back on, the bosses are gone, and the place is better guarded. Oddly, the adventure doesn't say anything about what happens if the PCs actually go ahead with attempting to bury the coyote in the foundations like they were supposed to. It's probably going to be tricky, and it doesn't really make any difference. Of course, if the PCs give up here then all the time they spent catching the coyote was for nothing. Hurray!
The PCs might want to go check in with Rebecca now, but it's the middle of the night (yea, they took the whole evening chasing the coyote) and she's not at work, so it's probably a good time to go follow up on that note. What about the book? That's one of the books the PCs took from Bob in the first session, and right now it's at Nate's, but getting it isn't too hard; whenever the PCs get to Nate's, he isn't in, and the waitress remembers them and is sufficiently ditzy she'll unlock his office for him if they just ask. Both the book and the note both have marques from the Silver Cloud casino, helping the PCs connect them and also telling them where the meeting's going to happen.
The Silver Cloud is a burned-out wreck if the PCs happen to go to it at any moment before this; if they go this time, it's still a burned-out wreck, but there's a single elevator working that takes them to a beautiful and furnished penthouse, where they can meet the Hermit. Actually, it's the same security guard who gave them the note. Well, ok, more than that - the Hermit is Hades. He won't tell them that, but the elevator thing should tell them this is something big.
(By the way, while typing this I kept getting "Hermit" and "Hades" crossed in my head and typing "Hermes", which I suppose would be accurate for a greek god, but I couldn't help imagining him as a Jamaican bureaucrat.)
Hopefully, the PCs brought the book. If they don't, he's kind of upset, and hopefully they can get the book to him before the night's over. Because, as was suggested at by the GM advise at the beginning of the chapter, this meeting absolutely must happen. The other derails might be recoverable. This? Nope. So let's hope the PCs are really the types to trust a completely random note passed to them by a random person. In Hell. Also, if the PCs attack the Hermit, he just disappears, and the entire plot is fucked.
Still, the Hermit's much nicer than everyone's been so far. He knows a ton of stuff, will share at least a bit of it, and is genuinely interested in what happened to the PCs in the desert. He can tell them that the fact they appeared in the desert means they really pissed someone off (people arrive in all kinds of places, even just arriving into their own hotel rooms). He's seen Pikadons before, but he genuinely doesn't know what it is - there was no such thing as an angel when Hades was around, after all. But he knows it's powerful and here to do something. And he also knows very well about the rumored robbery that Rebecca told them about.
That would be because he is the one planning the robbery. Guess who he wants to commit it?
Not yet, though. He's going to sort out a bunch of help for them first, and he doesn't know which casino he needs robbed either. What he wants is a very valuable thing that's somehow "made of chips" which is in one of the vaults, and he wants it because he thinks he can use it to kill the Pikadon. At the same time, there'll be high value chips there that the PCs can use to buy their way up the black elevator - and he'll explain the thing about the physical weight of chips making the high value ones especially important.
And at that point, someone starts coming up in the elevator. Bullneck has followed them here. (Can the PCs notice him doing so, lose the tail, send him to a false lead? No, no, and no, in that order.) The Hermit lets them out the fire escape, tells them to "volunteer for the tithe run" at the end of the day, and says he'll keep in eye on them. If the PCs for some reason try to go back in, there's no penthouse, and it's a burned-out husk again, except with a pissed-off Bullneck and three demons. There's also four other demons surrounding the building.
At this point the adventure assumes, very strongly assumes, that the PCs are either going to run, or play cat and mouse with Bullneck in the ruined casino and then run. Like before, Bullneck's guys won't shoot to kill unless the PCs attack first. It suggests playing out a chase with the cards, but god knows how that even works given there are no examples of contested actions that aren't combat. So, yea. There's a reason why I reviewed this in the middle of a chain of GM advice books. None of them have ever said how to run a tense scene like this without either system support or reducing it to obvious fiat that shreds engagement. If the PCs get in a fight, they'll probably die and adventure over, and they might also kill Bullneck which screws up the next event, but.. oh, never mind.
Also, at some point Bullneck trashes the PCs car - when they try to get into it, if that's where the ran to, or off-camera if they headed for one of their safe houses. For some bizarre reason, his goons also leave his car behind with the keys in the ignition, where nobody else takes it. In Hell. This is because the adventure really, really wants the PCs to find that Bob Munker is tied up in the back of Bullneck's car. He's been banging his head on the inside of the trunk and knocked himself into insensibility, but he's there.
So, the PCs head to one of their hotels, get some sleep, meet Rebecca again in the morning. Hey Rebecca, you're still not telling us anything, are you. Yea, the coyote thing, we buried it, or maybe we didn't, but it doesn't matter. Shall we tell you about the Hermit? That sounds like a pretty terrible idea, but if the PCs do it, she'll just encourage them to play along until they find the target then let her know and they'll get promoted. What she will tell them is who Bullneck is, and offer to calm him down for them. She will also tell them of a more pressing problem. Nate has disappeared, and she's afraid he's been taken to Harry Spicer's out of town. Head there and see if they can find anything. Ok, Rebecca. Off we go.
Remember we talked about how the comedy section earlier was meant to offset the horror coming later? This is our horrific moment.
"Harry Spicer's" doesn't exist. It's a strangulation of "Haruspices". Haruspices are fortune-tellers who attempt to divide the future by looking at the entrails of sacrificed animals, usually sheep or poultry. Neither of those exist in Vegas (don't ask where the soup and steaks come from. No, seriously, don't ask, there's no explanation). Guess what they use instead.
But, hang on, when you kill a person don't they turn into casino chips? How can you examine their entrails if their body's disappeared? Well, you have it not disappear. How do you do that?
Nate's entrails and organs have been extracted from him alive. He obviously can't survive that, but they've made sure he's dying as slowly as possible, so as to have maximum examination time. His constant agonized screaming is a distraction they have to put up with.
The PCs don't get much of a chance to react before they find out who the Haruspices' client was; he's in the back room. It's Bullneck, of course. Usual story, couple of goons with him, and he opens by firing a few warning shots but isn't shooting to kill. Unfortunately, this time someone else is driving past outside and hears shooting, and decides to shoot back with the automatic weapons they keep in their car. Before long it's a full-on lethal firefight with M-16s, machine guns and shotguns blazing. How do we play this out? What do the PCs do? Well, again, god knows how this is supposed to run with any agency. Seriously, someone tell me.
Running outside will get the PCs shot, so the safest thing for them to do is to go cower in the back office with the actual haruspices themselves (no, neither of them is called Harry Spicer, they're both women). They'll tell the PCs that they work for whoever hires them; that their facility is supposed to be a DMZ where there's no confrontations because it's a "sacred place"; and that the reading they got from Nate was, guess what, "great change is coming". They won't do a reading for the PCs, partly because that's a pretty horrid thing for them to suggest and more because they're both shellshocked and too expensive for the PCs anyway. They have a bunch of knives the PCs can fight with, and a bow - the first hint that hey, humans can use ranged weapons, just not guns. It's not mentioned in the adventure, but I suppose it's possible that the PCs decide to kill the haruspices to make sure no-one else gets tortured that way - a bit pyrrhic but it doesn't break anything (if the PCs come back to the haruspices after this scene, it's boarded up and empty either way)
So, blazing gunfight outside, PCs cowering, how do we make this fun? I have no bloody idea. They might want to go out and fight Bullneck I guess, they can do that if they want, but only at huge risk. How many hands of cards are we drawing per round? It doesn't matter, anyway, becuase the end of this session of the PCs watching NPCs killing each other is one NPC killing all of the others. Except that this particular NPC glows so unbearably bright that he can't be looked at without leaving afterimages on your eyes and gives you sunburn by being near him, and sets all of the demons here on foul-smelling fire just by showing up, then disappears leaving glowing, burning footprints. The Pikadon has just put in another appearance and cleaned house.
So: Nate's dead, by catching a bullet during the firefight. Bob's still in the trunk of the car outside, and the burning demons can still set light to cars, so it might be a good idea to get him out and put him somewhere he can get better (he was going to be the next sacrifice but no-one told him that). The Pikadon apparently just showed up personally to help the PCs, which will make the PCs the #1 persons of interest in town to anyone who finds out about it. And people are going to find out about it, because almost an entire casino's worth of security demons just died in burning holy fire.
Back to Rebecca's. Hey guys. I just got a phone call saying that there were multiple deaths at Harry Spicer's, you know, that place I just sent you. Was that you? Basically, if the PCs tell her about the Pikadon then now they're Very Interesting People; if they claim to have done the killings themselves then now they're Very Interesting People because they managed that; and if they don't, then they're not but it doesn't matter because the same thing happens either way. Rebecca wants them to go over and help the Wands with their tithe run - that's when the smaller casinos send 10% of their take to their patron casinos in cases full of chips - because funnily enough the Wands is suddenly rather short of security staff. They need to go report to the new Head of Security at the Wands, a lady called Romanov. There's a message waiting for her from Bullneck telling her about the Hermit and the PCs, but fortunately she hasn't gotten it yet.
Compared to what just happened, this final section of this session is a bit weak. Romanov gives the PCs some chips to gamble with so they're not obvious on the casino floor and they hang around watching people with big attache cases passing through a red studded leather door. Of course nothing happens until the last one, where two guys come in with cases, two regular tourists attempt to jump them, and six other undercover security folks attack them. The PCs are not supposed to get involved in this, though. What they're supposed to note is that the second courier goes in through the red door, and someone who's been in hiding follows him in.
The PCs, hopefully, follow as well. If they do that, they find what's here - a counting room, stacked with chips, but none of them higher denomination than a 20. There's a demon security guard here in a standoff with the guy who darted in the door, and oh my god, it's Doug! Uh, who? Doug? Doug the guy who the PCs maybe gave the tape from the car to in the first session? Doug? Who? Eh, it doesn't mean anything. Fight him or let the guard do it. He's got a crossbow, so he gets one shot, but we still have no clue what that actually means or does in the combat system.
Apparently the big reveal here is that the Tithe Run is all low chips and is largely a sham, a fact that is entirely useless. This is probably because it's a distraction from what the PCs are actually meant to learn, which is the existance of the counting-room, and the fact that it contains a locked green door and an ominous looking conveyer belt. If any of the PCs is daft enough to jump down the conveyer belt, they're out of the game until next session. If they all do then, um, uh, game over I guess. Remember that time with the big green demon face?
There's two other important things to happen. One of them is that one of the PCs gets handed a card by Romanov, not one at random, a particular one. This is a set-up for one of the more infamous "fuck you" moments in the adventure. The second thing is that one of the security guards tells them to "check their trunk", and if we think this might turn out to be the same guard who passed them a note earlier, ding ding, gold star.
What's in their trunk? Black suits. Pressed shirts. The kind of nice stuff that casino staff wear. Guns (which they can't use) and holsters, and a note that "their destination will be in hand shortly". But the PCs can't leave the casino right now, because the Strip's closed, because the bosses' motorcade is coming in. The PCs should probably go see the show. And if they do, they'll immediately recognize the bosses by name as they walk down the red carpet.
Mammon, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, Belphegor and Satan. And Satan looks right at one of the PCs, shoots them with a finger-gun, and walks in. End of session.
So. I can see how the narrative of this session is supposed to flow, and I can see that the structure it's building is good. What I can't see, and can't get on with, is the interim structure. We essentially have two scenes here - the coyote hunt and the gunfight at the haruspices - which basically come down to "the PCs do whatever, they don't really have a lot of choice or direction, and then either things suddenly go right or everything is resolved for them". And I just have no clue how that works. I suppose for a GM that was a really talented storyteller that might be enjoyable on its own (and there's a reason why James Wallis also wrote Once Upon a Time and Baron Munchausen, he is a really talented storyteller)? Or, heck, if it's a celebrity GM then the selling point would just be that you're getting to see what they do? Or maybe it's just not how you're actually supposed to do it and you're supposed to improvise a bunch of alternative stuff? I don't know. I'm really asking here, honestly.
By the way, whoever runs the next session had better be a goddamn one-percenter of talent, because 75% of that session is another event of exactly that type. I might even end up having to do sessions 3 and 4 together because most of session 3 is just a description of stuff that could happen in that scene and I'm not going to transcribe the whole thing, c'mon, this isn't that old a book.
Act 3Original SA post
WARNING: SPOILERS ALL THROUGH THIS POST.
If you've been paying any attention, you already know what the third chapter is going to be about : the Casino heist. It's the majority of this session's text, and that's something when this is the shortest session write-up in the book, and 5 out of its 28 pages are about the consequences of the PCs learning that Vegas is Hell at the end of the last chapter.
First of all, there's the GM introduction to the stuff about chips and guns. The PCs don't ever get told these explicitly. Then there's a note that yes, the PCs are actually dead and so they can have flashbacks to their death if they want, and that either you or them probably ought to get started on flashbacks that might explain what the PCs did that they're in Hell - if they haven't been going that way anyway. If the PCs start getting cute and asking around about people's religions, then there's people from every religion here. Oh, and people haven't been telling the PCs that they're in Hell because anyone who knows it is treating it as an elephant in the room. Pretend you're not in Hell, pretend it's just actual Vegas for a bit and it's what it's always been, and maybe you'll believe it.
And then there's like three pages about story beats, where the author's writing this, and how much he likes Nordic LARP, before we get to the actual adventure text.
So, we have two things to do before we get to the heist. The first is to introduce the one remaining big character the PCs haven't seen: the innocent trapped in hell. We haven't introduced them yet because we're hoping that the flashbacks the PCs have had so far have mentioned or introduced someone they've referred to who can fill the role of the innocent; but if not, it's just someone they know. At some point before the heist goes down, the PCs are going to see glowing footprints - the Pikadon's - leading them to a particular room in the hotel in the Labyrinth casino, which is where the innocent has been sitting and/or sleeping practically catatonic since the PCs arrived. And the reason they are catatonic is because they don't see Vegas. They see the full bore rocks, flames, chains, devils, and screaming souls of actual Hell. The Pikadon told them to wait here for people who would know what to do, which is probably a surprise for the PCs.
Apart from meeting up, there's not a whole lot for the PCs to do with the innocent at this stage. They can take them with them, but they're going to be bugger all use on a heist and they're petrified of practically everything. The PCs also really need to be on board with this at this point and make sure that none of their flashbacks involve backing the innocent actually be not innocent. If the PCs don't follow the Pikadon's footprints, then the Innocent doesn't follow its instructions either, leaves the room and wanders around, and the PCs see them freaking out on the street.
The second thing to do is a visit to Count Your Blessings. The PCs will find a card mysteriously appeared in their wallets or pockets or purses for this place, which offers to "restore luck and refresh spirits", and including a packet of pomegranite seeds (a Hades reference) with a note to add to water. Hopefully the PCs head there (and if they do that directly, then they'll find their lead to the innocent on the way there). It's something akin to a church; well, actually a ritual bath. And the person in charge is Elvis (and yes, the PCs recognize him) only it's not actually Elvis, it's a somewhat mellower variant Elvis. Here, have this, because it's a quote that makes me smile whenever I read it:
An anecdote to give you an insight into who this guy is: when Elvis got out of the army, early 1960, Fort Dix, New Jersey, there was a scrum of reporters waiting to meet him outside the gates of the camp, throwing questions at him like buns at a happy but bewildered bear. Hey Elvis, you going to go on tour? Elvis, how did the army compare to the music business? What’s your next move? Hey Elvis, are you glad to be getting back to normal? And Elvis turns and looks at this guy, and says, ‘Sir, if my life turns normal, I’ll have to start drivin’ a truck again.’
I did look that up, and it is from an interview with Elvis in 1960, but the question was "Elvis, are you glad to be getting back to normal, or don’t you think your life could ever be normal?" which kind of changes the context a bit. The end of this section also hints that this mellow-Elvis isn't actually Elvis at all, it's Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis' stillborn twin brother. Let's not worry about what the heck a stillborn baby did to earn eternal damnation.
So, if they mention anything about the Hermit or the cards, not-Elvis will recognize them as the group for "the baptism" and instruct them on what to do in the ritual bath, which is basically to duck under the water and swim through a wide tunnel to the opposite side of the main wall. On the other side, there's a room which is the mirror image of this one, and another Elvis - but this one actually is Elvis, attitude and all - to pull them out. If they do that, hey, they feel really nice and mellow and happy and refreshed. Good for them.
Hopefully they remember the pomegranite seeds, and put them in the water. This makes the water turn oily and shiny, and not-Elvis will now be quite upset and demand 500 in chips from them as compensation for polluting the pool (if they don't have 500 he'll take all they have, but he can be haggled down; although there's nothing on what happens if they just don't pay, or attack him for some daft reason). Through they go, real-Elvis pulls them out on the other side, but now something's different. They don't look or feel the same. Real-Elvis will give them a note telling them that they now have an hour to pull the heist, their target is the Wands, and the Hermit has men on the inside.
What has actually happened is that the corrupted baptism has disguised the PCs as demons for an hour. They look like locals to everyone in Vegas, like full-bore horns-and-tails demons to the innocent, and for that period they can use guns as much as they like, get automatic wildcards on their tests, and generally do demon stuff. Unfortunately, we're a bit unclear on how the PCs find this out. The only clue that they are demons now is that their shadows are darker, something which is mentioned in the overall GM notes as a way of recognizing demons, but it's not supposed to be highlighted. If it hasn't been then there could be a bit of a problem here as the PCs have no way of knowing what's actually happened. If a PC doesn't want to go through the corrupted baptism, hey, cool for them, they'll get identified and blasted to shit as soon as they attempt to get involved in the heist.
There's one other thing - while the PCs are being baptised, they have a flashback. The GM prompts them on it: they have a flashback to the worst moment of their life. That can be their own death or not, but they have to think of it quickly. If you have cooperative players they'll take advantage of this to tie themselves to the innocent and to being in hell. If you don't they'll probably bugger everything up.
So, yea. Demons for one hour. If the hour runs out too soon, the PCs are buggered because they can't get any more pomegranite seeds. So they'd better get their asses to the Wands, huh?
There's one other optional thing. You probably noticed that last session paid an awful lot of attention to Bob Munker. There's a reason for that. Remember how he wanted to tunnel into a counting-house? Well, astute players will have noticed that he therefore knew about the existance of underground counting-houses. He knows that because he used to work in the Wands, and if he's asked, he'll tell them the little he knows about what's beyond that green door (amazingly the adventure never mentions striking up the Jim Lowe song) in the counting-house the PCs saw. It's the vault, where all the chips are kept underground, and there's underground tunnels connecting all of the casinos. Again, astute players will reason that this is where the real tithe run happens, and they would be right. Bob does not know what is actually in the vault, though.
So, anyway, the Wands. (By the way, if the PCs decide to play nice with Rebecca - to do what she asked, go back and tell her that it wasn't the Swords they were told to target - then we have no clue what happens. In fact if they betray the Hermit in anyway beyond this point then everything's probably blown.)
This is the bulk of the session this time, but unfortunately, it's really awkwardly structured and hard to run. The PCs go into the casino, go through the red door to the counting-house (it's propped open and a new security system is being installed, but because demons will recognize the PCs as demons, the guards there are inclined to let them through), then go through the green door to the private employee area (which will require a fair bit of bluffing even from demons, or a bribe, or a stolen ID card, or just sodding it and killing everyone in the counting room). The green door leads to the underground connecting tunnels, and also to the staff lounge. Better hope those demon disguises hold up there, because everyone in the staff lounge is one. It's pretty nice, upholstered, there's bars, there's demons hanging around sipping drinks and nibbling on ribs. Human ribs. Do we remember what the haruspices had to do in order to keep Nate's body parts from just turning into chips?
Here's where the PCs can meet the Hermit's plant, Sheen. And they'll recognize him, because (assuming they got away) he was one of the demons burying Rebecca in the foundations earlier. He'll also quietly, and subtly, let them know he's working for the Hermit and he's there to run interference for their escape. (He won't tell them why he was burying Rebecca, and it wasn't the Hermit who told him to do it. The adventure doesn't tell the GM at this point, but I will: it was Satan. He still thinks he's pulling this as a two-man scam, remember?) Sheen's never been to the vault either, but he knows it's "pretty traditional".
There's a couple of doors off here. One of them leads to a tunnel leading to the Wheel, with a gate the guard won't let them through unless they have a damn good reason to need to go to the Wheel, which they don't.
And the second door leads to a twisted factory, lit by blazing sulphorous fires under vats of chips being melted down. Those chips, of course, are soul fragments, and the lucky individuals who own those souls get to feel themselves melting down. There's ear protectors outside for the screams. The molten chip-liquid is drawn off onto scurries and tipped into moulds to create bricks, girders, guns, cement, ashphalt, and pretty much everything that's modern in Hell; and then carried up in freight elevators to warehouses. Everything's iron, everything's hot and unpleasant, nothing is safe, most of the work is being done by luckless humans with demons on hand to make sure everything's fine, by which we mean spot anyone who stops working for whatever reason, beat them to death with crowbars and toss their chips in the hopper.
Only the highest value chips get put in the actual vault, which is suspended by chains from the ceiling. Anytime a PC looks at it, it looks like some kind of building from one of their worst flashbacks - ideally the "worst thing that ever happened" one they just had. Inside, the lowest chip is a 200, but the PCs probably aren't going to have time to maximise their takeage. And the thing the hermit wanted? It's a unique single, a completely black crystal with no number, heavier than it looks. The book says it's "like picking up a silver dollar that you know is made of pure plutonium" and I can't put it any better or shorter than that.
So, the PCs have to somehow distract others from seeing them (there's no central alarm system, though), either climb up into the vault or winch it down (there's a winch mechanism but the Vault being lowered is pretty bloody obvious), clean out the vault, then escape. How the hell (ha ha) are they supposed to do that?
They are not.
Literally all the section says is that there's no way this is going well for the PCs, at some point they have to get into the vault and get the black crystal and some chips, and they might possibly try and rescue some of the human workers too (very risky but not impossible, although shutting down the entire process is not an option) but inevitably they're going to end up being captured or beaten or shot at or both, and also their disguises are likely to wear off, and the PCs are going to realize that they are totally fucked, and then there's an enormous crash and blast and something like an earthquake rocks the whole site. Hoppers spill over, the vault rocks back and forth and chips start to slide out from it, anything vaguely powered goes out. Again, the PCs get to hang around hopeless in the darkness for a bit before they discover a bricked-over doorway and break it down, and they can sprint out, and find themselves half-way up a cliff in the side of a chasm.
A newly formed crevasse is splitting all of Vegas in half along the line of the Strip, long enough to stretch far into the desert. The power is out, the lights are off, the casinos are closed, places are falling down, the demons have taken the opportunity to declare open war between rival casinos so there's a fight or a burning car on every corner, and it's raining big, heavy splats of vaguely acadic water that smells of burnt plastic.
Ok, let's deal with these in order. There's a ton of confusion over the black crystal in the adventure, but the implication is that it isn't actually "made of chips" like the Hermit said. It's a single chip. It's a single chip dropped by some bastard who killed eleven million people, although there's only a few "chip readers" in town who can actually work that out, and most of them will be fucking terrified of the black crystal - even actual demons don't like it. The players will probably theorize about who dropped it, and only one character in the adventure can tell them that. No, it's not Hitler or anyone famous, it's "a random associate of Mao"; not Mao himself, because hell counts deaths that you were involved in or on your conscience as well as ones you directly caused.
Unfortunately the adventure repeatedly refers to it as containing "eleven million souls", even after establishing that it doesn't contain eleven million souls at all, it contains one soul with eleven million memories.
Now, what happened outside? The answer is: the two most powerful beings in this world, Satan and the Pikadon, got into a fight and caused rather a lot of collateral damage. The chasm? Satan straight up powerbombed the Pikadon into the ground. The PCs were busy doing the heist at the time, which is good for the GM because he or she did not have to describe what happened, and good for the PCs because they did not become part of that collateral damage, which actually wasn't entirely collateral (neither the GM or the players have learned this yet, but remember from the summary that Satan wants to get rid of the Vegas version of hell, so this was a pretty great excuse)
The PCs probably want to head to meet the Hermit at the Silver Cloud. That means crossing the chasm. Hopefully they'll come up with some way to do that. Unfortunately, there's a major gunfight going on at the Cloud, and the PCs disguises have dropped and they can't use guns any more. If they investigate the fight, they'll see that amongst it - not shooting, but on one of the sides - is Rebecca. She'll tell them that the fighting is because the casinos on each side of the crevasse are trying to claim territory on the other side in order to dominate trade, that she's found out the Hermit is behind it, and a moment later some detonation charges wrack the Silver Cloud and it plummets into the canyon. Also, Rebecca dies from an overdose of gunshots.
Basically, all that's left for the session is for the PCs to find somewhere to hole up in the chaotic city, it can be basically anywhere that's not any of the major casinos, just an empty house will do. If they take inventory of their haul from the heist, then without the black crystal it's 1.17 million, which is only enough for one trip up the elevator. After a few moments, the power comes back on, and the TV and radio are saturated with news of what's just happened, including pictures of the PCs. And then there's a knock on the door. It's Romanov, the Head of Security from the casino they just did over. And it's also her boss. Belphegor. A full-blown demon lord right there. Ocrap. End session.
So, like I said, this is unquestionably the hardest session to run of them all because it's focussed on the heist and that's just one giant impossible scenario with a deus ex machina at the end. The adventure actually says that, in heist tradition, everything ought to go wrong for the PCs, which is going to be pretty discouraging for the players and also stretch things a bit. Like I said before, part of the problem with adventuring in Hell is that it ought to be oppressive and terrible. You don't get breaks. If you get breaks they're one-in-a-million and you don't get a second. But here the PCs have to do something that ought by rights to get their souls flayed for a couple million years, and it has to go wrong, but not get them killed or anything. That's going to be really hard, and if your players haven't gone in for collaborative storytelling in the previous sessions, they're going to be very nonplussed here.
Act 4Original SA post
WARNING: SPOILERS ALL THROUGH THIS POST.
The fourth, and final, session.
Also, while doing this I realized that for some reason I have two versions of Alas Vegas. The older one, which is also the print one, forgot to include the option to Stick in the rules for opposed action Blackjack; it said you "have to play a card". I had always wondered about that since I first read the print version. The other changes were that the UK Blackjack term "twist" was changed to the US one "Hit" (although the UK term is still used for "Sticking", instead of "Standing"), and for some reason all the ligatures were taken out.
So. It's time to wrap things up. At this point, the PCs should have had enough flashbacks that they know who they were and how they got to Hell. It's also important that they have an idea of exactly what they did to cause the Innocent to end up in hell; ideally, an actual deal with the devil. There's a neat twist here: if any of the PCs in a flashback mentions having interacted with Satan before, the GM jumps in and plays them, which never normally happens in a flashback. That could be a really neat sensory trick. The other trick is that the GM is also asked to start thinking about why the PCs might be redeemable, which could be interesting, assuming your players didn't pull a total tantrum and start having their characters flashback to truck-loading babies into mincing machines when they found out they were in Hell.
We also have the aformentioned "infamous fuck you" moment of the adventure. We left last session with the PCs having a demon lord in their faces. But how did he find them? The answer is that one of the PCs has betrayed the group. Which PC? The one whose player is running this session. That's why they were passed the card from Romanov back in the second session.
Obviously the idea here is that the player shouldn't be stuck trying to play both the NPCs and themselves in the final encounter, which is understandable. But as was pointed out by other reviewers here, it also means that particular player's development of and interest or empathy or engagement with their character has just been shredded. There's no warning that this is going to happen until they read this section. What makes it worse is that it isn't even a good idea, as we'll see later.
So. Belphegor is coming into the PCs room. It doesn't matter if they unlock the door or not. He's coming in. He wants to know why they ripped him off, which seems a bit of a peculiar question when you think about it, but he's set up for either of the answers. If they mention the Hermit (or even Satan), he'll tell them they're being used and ask if they want payback. If they don't, and just say they want to escape, he'll offer to help them escape if they do a favor for him.
Either way, the deal is this: they give Belphegor back his regular chips. He gives them his artifical eye, which replaced the one that was torn out by Satan, which is valuable enough to get all of them a ride on the black elevator. The PCs keep the black crystal, turn it into a bullet, and shoot Satan in the eye with it once they meet him at the top of the elevator. Once they're in the Big Game, Satan can't break the rules no matter what the PCs do, so if they get out, bully for them; if they don't get out, Belphegor will give them jobs, either as his right-hand guys and gals or a casino of their own. The PCs cannot refuse the deal, because this is a demon lord, he's not leaving without it, and if they're daft enough to attack him they don't even get to draw.
There's a few bits of side information, too. Belphegor believes that the Hermit was killed when the Silver Cloud was destroyed (and will confirm that it was the Swords and thus Rebecca who planted the charges, if they ask that). He doesn't know anything about the Big Game apart from that it's about the only time mortals get to be alone in a room with Satan. But there is the intriguing hint in the text that technically Belphegor can do the black elevator thing too, and he presumably gets to escape if he wins, which could be.. well, kinda fascinating in the larger setting, but it doesn't go anywhere. It's like Jareth and that whole "expectations of me" speech.
Also, the PCs are probably wondering about that whole "turn the black crystal into a bullet". Belphegor apparently knows this is possible but doesn't know how it's done. We don't know why. Either he or Romanov (who's with him) will suggest that "someone out in the desert" might know how. Then, it's time for the session GM's PC to give the PCs their evil monologue and then leave with the demon lord and the 1.17 million chips. Of course, this could end up going rather badly.
"Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, right? And you guys were all digging yourselves deeper, anyway."
"Uh, yea, but dude, Belphegor just gave us the stuff we need to escape and, you know, not be damned for eternity. And if we don't get that, he says we'll be his lieutenants, so we'll at worst get exactly the same as you're getting. I guess you feel like a bit of a sucker, right?"
Of course, it doesn't play out that simply. The PCs don't yet know that the result of losing the Big Game is becoming a demon (although there was one clue - the demons in the employee lounge in the third session did acknowledge that sometimes new guys show up). So it plays out much worse for the betraying PC, because not only do the other PCs get the same favor from Belphegor, they get turned into demons who are intrinsically more powerful.
So, we have two more things to do before the Big Game, and the elevator doesn't open till midnight so we have time to do them. The first is to find out who the guy in the desert is, and more or less any knowledgable surviving contact will tell them (in exchange for a bribe or something they know) that it's a guy called Doc Raoul. He's a crazed survivalist with a pump-action crossbow who's still genuinely trying to redeem himself, and if the PCs want to talk to him they need to talk up their desire to escape or help the innocent or mention other folks they known. It's probably better not to mention that a demon lord suggested looking for him.
He's our final Mr. Exposition, and he isn't into the information economy. If he thinks the PCs are good guys, he'll straight up tell them all he knows. He knows that the Pikadon's an angel, and that it's tied with the innocent. He knows that the Hermit is Hades. He knows that chips are souls. And he knows that all of the random stuff happening now can indicate a coming phase shift - that's when the underlying metaphor of Hell changes. He's never seen one himself, but he's met people who remember when Hell wasn't Vegas. He doesn't know anything about the Big Game, and points out that anyone who claims to is lying, since nobody ever comes back down. He also knows how to make the chip into a bullet, or rather, he knows who can do it. The Innocent is toxic to the essence of Hell, and a damned and tormented soul, given the chance via them, will surely take the chance to strike back at its tormentors.
So, it's now time for two things. It's time for our final summative journey, and it's time for a boss rush. The final summative journey is back out of the desert, back into Vegas, off to see the Innocent and then head to the black elevator. On the way is our last chance to make sure we know how the PCs were responsible for the innocent being in Hell. It's going to look a bit different this time - because Doc Raoul also drugged the PCs tea with mescaline. While they're on that, they see Hell as the innocent does, but through the knowledge they have too. They can see the buildings and the roads and the structures are built from chips, and those are built from memories, and those are built from the accumulated evil acts of humanity, and that includes them. They understand the true nature of Hell. And, again, we have that trick of how to make this all interesting and immersive while the PCs are just sitting in their car, but hey.
So, boss rush? Yea, it's a bunch of encounters in quick succession. First, is some more Lost. Hey, remember those guys from way back? The only difference is that now the PCs have stuff and a car, and they do have the option of just tossing the Lost some food, or running their asses over. They can still fight them, but there's more of them now, and.. um, have we levelled up? See, we always have this problem with final gauntlets, that you want them to be risky so they're exciting, but at the same time there's little space for recovery here and it'd be a heck of a damp squib for a PC to end up dead or abandoned in the desert.
When the PCs get to Vegas, their probably first stop is the Innocent. Just have him touch the black crystal and it becomes a bullet, no problem. If he does the same with Belphegor's Eye, it turns into a bullet too, and now it can't buy their way into the elevator anymore. D'oh. Of course what we're really hoping is that the PCs ask the Innocent to come with them, which the Innocent will only do if they make absolutely clear they are getting them out. And yes, they've got the budget: Belphegor's Eye would have paid for the whole group, but one member left, so there's absolutely a slot for the Innocent.
Belphegor gave them a regular gun, which they can't use, and the carriage is still locked, but the bullet can be loaded into the muzzle of the gun and once that's done, the PCs can use the gun and it will utterly annihilate one thing that they shoot with it. Let's hope they make it count.
Off deeper into Vegas, now, and it's quite clear that there is one hell of a phase shift. And if the PCs learned that the Hermit is Hades, it's pretty plain whose phase is shifting. The crevasse has become an evil, thick black river; hands reach from it to draw people down. Yes, there's a ferryman. His price is a coin per crossing. That's a coin - not a chip. As a result, there is a sudden demand for coins. There are a few places the PCs might have been where coins were mentioned in the flavor text, and there are some for sale for ridiculous chip prices. And yes, if a PC has a flashback to placing coins on the eyes of another PC in death, that PC has those coins now, but only one PC can do this and only for two coins tops. Swimming's not an option, but nothing in the adventure says you can't just ramp the thing in your car or something similar, so hey.
Across the river, the phase shift is more apparent. Anyone on mescaline is seeing the scenery starting to become transparent, and the city's rearranged itself into something substantially harder and more roundabout to navigate. Welcome to the Labyrinth, guys. There's two more challenges in our gauntlet, and the next one is Cerberus. Three-headed doberman. Hey, we fought three dobermans before, didn't we? Ah-ha. The trick with Cerberus is that he's actually cool with the PCs, but not with the Innocent. He's also not blocking the only available route, so it's really asking the PCs if they'll go out of their way to help the Innocent, and let's hope they do. If the Innocent actually gets killed here, then it sucks for everyone including the players, and the advice is to let it suck. Hang on, how does this work in the combat system? Does Cerberus just draw against the Innocent automatically? How do you tank for your buddy at Blackjack? Uhh..
Reaching the actual Strip, it's also breaking down. The casinos are still here but with a catch. You can't win. Literally every hand is a bust, and anyone still gambling is doing it out of sheer bloody-mindedness or denial of the fact they're damned. But still, without the chance of winning, Vegas's whole basis is dead. In we go to the black elevator.
Oh, hang on. You know what else lives in labyrinths? Minotaurs! Who's going to be our Minotaur? How about the guy with a ton of bull references already made? Hey, Photoshop Bullneck. This is meant to be a final fight, but let's face it, I have no clue how this works at this point - or even why the PCs shouldn't just bail the heck into the elevator. In addition, the GM is instructed not to make the fight too tough. Not sure how they can do that other than deliberately playing Blackjack badly, and nothing's ever suggested doing that before this point, so this could be the easiest fight in the adventure.
Ok, we're done. Up into the black elevator, up until you think you can't get any higher, and out into the Mahogany-lined lounge for the Big Game, where Satan and the Hermit - hey, let's just call him Hades now - are sitting together. Two-man scam, guys. Heh. Actually, although this is explained to the GM, there isn't a lot of detail on how it would be explained to the PCs, since neither of the two are particularly interested in giving infodumps at this point. It is, however, the best written scene in the entire adventure, and the PCs have a ton of options here. Let's meet the players.
Iiiin the red corner, Satan. Satan did the deal with one of the PCs to bring the Innocent to hell. When the Pikadon turned up, Satan knew the innocent was here too. He had Rebecca Oh buried to kick off a war between multiple casinos in order to start chaos, on top of the Pikadon being present at all, and on top of the damage caused by him fighting the Pikadon, all to get him a ton of disruption and a ton of power to kick off the phase shift. Satan doesn't care too much about the PCs. What he cares about is the Innocent. He'd really like it if the PCs brought the Innocent with them, because he hasn't been able to find the Innocent himself (what with him having no power over one who has not sinned and all that). If they didn't, well, the Innocent's still in Hell and that's what really matters.
Here's his deal: the Big Game. The million chips is irrelevant now. The Big Game is: your memories and humanity against your escape. Anyone who wants to play needs to be able to narrate their entire story, connecting all their flashbacks and explaining who they are and how they got here. The PCs can do this one by one or as a group, whichever they prefer or will have better rhythm. Each of them then gets to play Tarot Blackjack against Satan, one hand, Satan is dealer, no cheating either side, and no wildcards because this is actual Blackjack and not the combat system. They win, they disappear and "where they arrive is not in the remit of this adventure". That's pretty much all it says for that one, so this is the Meh Ending. They lose, all their memories and humanity are burned away, leaving them a demon, and the black elevator will drop them off at the basement.
Satan has a couple of tricks to make sure the Innocent doesn't leave. First, if it's been established that one of the PCs actually sacrificed the innocent, he'll say that the Innocent can't leave because while Hell accepts living sacrifices, nowhere else does, and they can't go back to Earth, so there's nowhere else for them to go. Second, the stake for the Big Game is your memories, and the Innocent has forgotten everything and doesn't have flashbacks in Hell. The PCs might try to cobble together a story for him, but it'll never be good enough for Satan.
If the players attack Satan, he will laugh. If the players pull the gun on Satan, he will laugh even more. If the players actually shoot Satan, he will stop laughing because there will be a hole in his head big enough to see through. He won't actually die completely, but Hades will happily head over, put the boot in, and take over while Satan's in torpor.
Speaking of which. Iiiin the green corner, Hades. Hades is stringing Satan along. The casino robbery was his, and Belphegor strongly suspected it was something to do with him, but Satan thinks Hades only wanted the crystal to consume its power and doesn't know anything about the gun. Hades' big ace here for the PCs is that he's cool with the Innocent leaving. His style of Underworld does let mortals go home, and since it's not Vegas, you don't need stakes to play with him. He'll mutter this under his breath if the PCs don't twig. The only way he's actually getting his game played, though, is if the PCs shoot Satan, which Hades would like them to do very much.
If they shoot Satan, then Hades immediately sends the Innocent home if he's there (we don't find out what happens if he's not, I mean I guess you could have them just screwed, but I'd be tempted to go with him offering to send him home as soon as he's found). Hades doesn't play casino games, he just invokes the Fates straight up. Four cards off the top of the deck. Any of them's a signifier? All the PCs escape. None of them? They're Hades' lieutenants building the new Underworld. Yes, the odds are not looking good for them. What, you thought any of these people were nice? If the PCs actually escape here, there's actual boxed text - the PCs again appear in limbo above the game room, but this time, there's stairs. Stairs that, if you look very hard, lead to light. Good Ending. Nice one, guys.
For some bizarre reason, the PCs might decide to shoot Hades. If they do that, he's completely dead (he doesn't have Satan's benefit of being the one with the power right now), and Satan is mightily pissed off because as far as he knew, Hades was helping him and he needed that help. Satan will still play his version of the Big Game because he has to keep his promise, but it'll be even less pleasant than it would otherwise be. The book also mentions the intriguing possibility that the PCs might somehow have two bullets, which I suppose they could have if they gave Belphegor's Eye to the Innocent after using it to pay their way into the elevator. Unfortunately, it's another Jareth moment, because if the PCs actually shoot both Satan and Hades then there's no freaking clue what happens other than the PCs potentially being stuck in the gameroom until Cthulhu rises. Tucked away in a random footnote in a completely different section of the book (!) is the suggestion that the PCs might be able to escape from Hell if they.. destroy Satan's Tarot deck? Huh.
Iiiin the straitjacket hanging by the side, the Innocent. The Innocent is scared out of his goddamn wits. He's only here because there's a vague chance of him getting out. He doesn't remember anything, but he'll listen to any of the stories the PCs tell about him. He's not going to kiss and make up, though, or indeed do anything but be shocked to the core at how monstrous the people he once trusted really were. If the PCs shoot Satan, he'll be very pleased indeed at getting to escape. If the PCs shoot Hades, he'll go into full-on hysteria. If the PCs, again "for some insane reason", shoot the Innocent then he's so torn apart there aren't even atoms left, Satan doesn't have the power necessary for the phase shift, Hades knows they aren't going to shoot Satan now, and the PCs are fucking damned damned never see a smile again damned. I guess they.. maybe vaguely helped some of the people in Hell the phase shift might have affected? Maybe? Huh. They still get to play the Big Game if they want, I guess, but God help them even if they win. Actually, scratch that. God will unquestionably not help them, and that's the problem. (Ok, sorry, I was just being cute with the phrasing there, nobody in the adventure will mention God in any official capacity.)
And now here's the PCs. They can try to play either game, they can shoot, they can do what they wish. Ok, a lot of choices screw them, but it's Hell. Nobody said it would be easy. If any of them actually like the idea of being demons, then Satan is - as always - absolutely 100% up for making deals, especially if they involve him not getting shot or the Innocent being kept in Hell. Heck, the PCs might even decide to have a brawl in the gameroom while Satan puts on his best trollface.
Either way, it's over. The PCs either became demons or escaped, to limbo or redemption; the innocent is free or unfairly damned. So yea, this is probably the best scene in the whole thing, and it's where my theories about "this is a great storytelling GM trying to allow others to be that great" come to the fore, because the last scene is the one where they can actually give the GM and the players all the freedom they had without worrying about how something might affect future events and derail everything to the point where their adventure writing is irrelevant and the amateur GM is floundering. It'd be nice to have a few more of those, but it'd also create an impossible number of branches, so it's probably not so doable in any printed adventure, which makes me sad.
So, before we get to the extra adventures, there's a few extra separate essays that basically serve as add-ons to the Vegas adventure.
Stacking Hades' Wager is a quick guide to how to do a card force. This is basically so that if the players play Hades' game, you don't get stuck giving them a bad ending simply because the odds are bad.
The Guide To Drinking Heavily In Vegas is a list of cocktail recipes themed around the alternate casinos and the demon lords. Yes. I suppose the players might want to be drunk while playing some bits of this adventure, especially the bit with the coyote.
The Big Board At The Adelphi is a subsystem you can throw in where one particular casino accepts bets on events happening in Vegas, and yes, that includes stuff that happens to the PCs, and yes, people can place bets on them and they can see the bets placed on them. They can bet on themselves, too. But it's all for "Adelphi credits" which are used for favors at that casino, not chips, which is a really irritating way of preventing the subsystem interacting with the main plot and I'd be sorely tempted to throw out.
In-Game Gambling is a subsystem on what to do if the PCs want to gamble in-character, basically to avoid actually playing casino games at the table because this screws up immersion, takes too much time, and doesn't account for varying skill levels.
Grifts, Scams and Making It In Hell is a curious one. It basically describes how to run Vegas-Hell as a survival sandbox if the PCs either want to play on after the end of the adventure or would just rather do that. It's mostly about potential scams they could run and how they might get away with them, since being sneaky's about the only chance they'll have to achieve anything in the setting.
Tarot-Jumping Other Games is about how to use cards from the Tarot to inspire events in other RPGs. It's not about how to use the Fugue system, so it's not really connected to Alas Vegas at all apart from the cards.
And then we have the additional scenarios for fugue. These are: Killing Bugsy Siegel, Yet Already It Seems I Have Travelled Far, Warlock Kings, and Remembering Cosmic Man. Bugsy's the shortest of all, and the other three are full 4-session campaigns, but with a bit less detail.
Assessment and Supplementary ContentOriginal SA post
WARNING: (SLIGHTLY LESS) SPOILERS ALL THROUGH THIS POST.
So, Alas Vegas, then. Unlike some other reviewers, I don't think I'd pull my pledge entirely if I owned a time machine. I might pledge less, but I'd still have been interested in seeing this. I can't deny I'm a little disappointed, but as I said, there are parts of this I absolutely love. This is partly because I'm a sucker for alternative cosmologies with internal consistency and experimentation (it's one reason I like Unknown Armies so much) and Alas Vegas has a bunch of that. The rules about chip denominations, the horror of keeping people alive to prevent them being chipped, the idea that mortals can't use guns so they naturally thought "hey can we use bows".. they all work well.
Another reason is that while it's a railroad, it's trying hard not to be a "pinball protagonist" story where the PCs can't do anything except see parts of the setting. The PCs do have options, they can access previous resources, and the ending "haha you were part of my plan all along" has a twist that gives the PCs agency. Those facts alone make it better than a ton of pre-written adventures I've seen. At the same time, it hits a ton of problems I'd have running. How do you make journeys through surreal landscapes entertaining, while the PCs can't really do anything? How do you make Hell a sandbox without making it seem like a world of opportunity, which is exactly how Hell should not feel?
As I've mentioned here, the author, James Wallis, is a multiple published author, editor and former TV presenter (I went to look for what he presented, and it's something called Download Extra on a Sky channel helpfully named ".tv", which I haven't been able to find any examples of). That means that when it comes to storytelling and charisma he's probably at least above average, if not exceptional. (It might not surprise anyone to learn that Alas Vegas was originally a novel.) So it's perfectly possible that if he's run this at conventions or playtesting, people might well be playing simply for the joy of being involved in his storytelling, and obviously he'd have an easier time improvising things in the world he invented.
Warning: rambling theory paragraph, skip if you like. Books and articles love to talk about GM-as-referee or arbiter or narrator and so on, but what about GM-as-personality? It's never considered really. It then becomes a brain burner if GM-as-personality is the apex of the GM's art or a confounding variable. I don't know any GMs like that personally, maybe there's a goon or two who might qualify, but I can't deny that I'd like it if I was one of them. A GM-as-personality can run anything and engage anyone, but only because that engagement comes from something entirely orthogonal to the actual game. Which is naturally going to give all kinds of wrong results in playtesting, but then how do you limit the GM's personality contribution to playtesting without limiting everything else too and requiring every game to be baby's first RPG?
There's two other possibilities. One is that it's well known that after Alas Vegas succeeded heavily on its Kickstarter, Wallis wanted to write more material to "justify the extra money". As was pointed out to him this was technically unnecessary, the extra money would be justified by selling more copies, but hey, we can't complain. So maybe Vegas started as a framework-type adventure, and the extra content is the stuff that was added, but he couldn't add it all to every branch?
And there's a third one. Of all the bits of Fugue that make it awkward, the biggest by far is the rotating GM. That enforces a degree of railroading and ties the hands of GMs by hiding future information from them. If this was originally GM-as-personality, a rotating GM would make no sense. But how do you take a game that worked on the personality of the GM and make it interesting for Joe Schmoe?
The answer is: GM-as-curiosity. The reason for the rotating GM would be that the players are meant to enjoy learning about you via how you run the sessions. And thinking of that puts everything into perspective. The reason for the selective information, the reason for the mismatched system that requires a bunch of fiat, are all because GMing the game is part of the game, and how you use these tools is part of what you're communicating. In fact, it's the majority. The real game of Alas Vegas is running Alas Vegas; that's why everyone gets to do it.
I don't know 100% that this was intended. If it was, it could have been made much clearer. But this is the guy who wrote Baron Munchausen, which entirely revolves around one person telling a story while others around the table throw in complications. And at least one his "business card RPGs" has the statement "On your turn, you are the GM..".
Ok, enough rambling. Let's look at the remaining content of the book. I'll be briefer on this, because these are much shorter adventures (some of them are shorter than a single Vegas chapter).
Killing Bugsy Siegel isn't a Fugue adventure at all. It's a Cursed Earth or Chainsaw Warrior style game (albeit with no dice) of dividing the Tarot deck into a hand of resources and an encounter deck, and playing through one to generate a story as you go. It's quite interesting, but I'm not going to post too much of it here because it's all just rules and unlike Fugue they're not freely available. Let's not ask the question about whether or not it's a good idea to write a game about killing a real person, albeit one who's long dead.
Yet Already It Seems I Have Travelled Far is arguably an even more intriguing cosmology than Vegas. It's based on time travel, and it adds a new twist to the Fugue system. When you have a flashback, you draw a card; the number tells you how long ago it was, and the suit tells you which of the 4 timelines it's in. The timelines are tracked on paper, Microscope style. As you might guess, each timeline gets one session and one GM, and results of flashbacks can affect future sessions or the current one. In the last two sessions, flashbacks become actual full-blown time travel and all the PCs appear in the flashback and can make changes.
The background to this one is based on Abel Archer, the 1983 military exercise that was mistaken by the Soviets for cover for an actual nuclear strike, which nearly resulted in them firing back and starting a war. In this world, they did fire back, and there was a nuclear war, until a Professor Klingsor invented the time machine and went back to make sure that a Soviet agent in the US was able to discover that Abel Archer really was just an exercise. (It's an anagram of "Long risk" if you're wondering about that name.) The only problem is that time travel is something you're really not supposed to do, and it fractured the timeline into 4 parts. It also summoned "demons", creatures from outside reality who feed on corrupted timelines and eventually wipe them out.
The four time lines are: Cups World, like our own but with strange misshapen dog-sized spiders in the alleys and a prevalent drug named Demon Dust; Wands World, the original timeline that Klingsor changed, where the change has started to break down so the world is becoming post-apocalyptic even though nobody remembers the apocalypse; Coins World, where demons have been present for centuries and an Order has developed to manipulate them and use them for time travel; and Swords World, where Klingsor carried on making changes to history, and has created an idealised future of flying cars, enough for everyone, and any dissenter either mysteriously disappearing or having such terrible luck they never achieve anything.
It sounds fascinating, and there's a ton of stuff, but ew boy. If you thought Vegas was a railroad, this is even worse: a pixel hunt. The PCs are in a city, they can wander all over the city until they happen to mention a flashback to the one guy who advances the adventure. What they're trying to do in each world is to find the time machine and the background behind it, which then takes them to the next World.
Also, I can't forgive the ending. Essentially, the PCs find that ultimately, to stabilize reality there must be only one timeline, and it's their presence in a timeline that forces that timeline to exist. So they have to go back and kill themselves, yes they are the ones who sent the assassin guys grooooan, and at that point the game seems to encourage some kind of bizarre PvP thing where the person who GMed each timeline vies for their timeline to be the one that survives or something? Huh. Still, apart from that it's a fascinating idea.
Warlock Kings is our next one. Take Total Recall. Good start. Make it fantasy. Now reverse it. And you've got the basic idea of this one. The PCs start as Paladins who've been corrupted by the Dark Lord and given a magical eye and hand each (hmm, now where did we get that from). Their task is to work from the inside and screw up the Dark Lord's invasion of three different lands. There's one session per land, and the PCs can play them in any order. Also, they're written up puzzle-piece style as suggested things to link into encounters, and they're disconnected by geographical separation. So if you like sandboxing and exploration, this is by far the best adventure in the book.
The Fugue twist on this one is that the PCs can choose whether their flashbacks occur before or after they were corrupted. If it's before, they get mundane abilities from being a Paladin. If it's after, they get magic powers (limited by GM fiat) from the hand and eye. Also, there's an overall clock which affects what's happening in each scenario when the PCs get to it; each has a series of events on a "campaign sheet" which are ticked off as the PCs pass through them.
This is probably the adventure that traditional groups will like the most, but again, it has a problem with the ending. Remember what I said about reversing Total Recall? The intended twist of this one is that no, the PCs aren't Paladins who erased their memories in order to infiltrate the Dark Lord, they actually did fall, get screwed by Fate in their lives, and ask to join the Dark Lord of their own free will and intent. I know a lot of players who that wouldn't make happy. If the PCs actually kill the Dark Lord (and it's listed as being a tough fight, the eyes and hands all shut down, but no clue as to how you make a fight tough in Fugue) then there's no real ending other than the PCs being asked to make up for themselves what happens next, which could be really dissatisfying.
Finally, Remembering Cosmic Man takes Fugue into.. classic superheroes? The twist with this one is that the players make up a superhero each, but then at the start of the adventure they're immediately arrested for the apparent murder of Cosmic Man, the setting's Superman analogue. For the first three sessions, the players instead play agents of the civilian anti-super force who fight supervillains with tech (the PCs were actually the only "heroes" in the city; all the other supers were either villains or just used their powers for fancy jobs), but their flashbacks apply to their heroes.
The GMing structure of this one's a mystery with filler. There's a bunch of very skeletal "sample encounters" the PCs might have with supervillains, and a chain of clues for them to follow (not related to those encounters) which lead to the killer of Cosmic Man, which isn't actually any of the PC heroes. They also get to learn that superheroes are created from a magical Tarot deck, and to pointlessly look for the deck, which they can't find by fiat until the final session when they play their supers again.
The reveal on this one? Another open ending, but a bit better. Cosmic Man killed himself - well, what he actually did was to destroy the Tarot card that gave him his powers, which also made him young, so destroying it caused his immediate death of old age. He did it because he believed that having super-people at all was ruining things, and he used one of the extra cards to give the PCs amnesia exactly so they'd be shut down for a few days and the city would be without superheroes, and would see what would happen. The ending is that the PCs get hold of the Tarot deck, and can choose what they do with it; they can give themselves all the powers, depower themselves, shred the entire deck, etc. It's a nice conceit, but the violent change to the background that the PCs will use to give themselves flashbacks could potentially be very awkward, and Fugue isn't really made for playing out a game that's 75% regular anti-super agents having comic book style encounters.
So, that's our Vegas. As I said above, it's a tad disappointing, but it's far from meritless: there's a ton of good ideas here, even if the system's kind of weak. Certainly a lot more could be done with the hell-Vegas setting and I'm also kinda partial to the four-timelines setting of But Already. If it was a game for exploring GMing, that'd be a fascinating idea, but it really needed to be better expressed in that way.