ThatGuyAt the risk of being ‘that guy,’ I’m going to tell you about my campaign.

My gaming group recently wrapped up our 1980s Anomaly Adjustment Agency campaign. This was my first non-fantasy campaign since junior high school, and my first modern campaign ever. It ran for 18 months, went places I never expected in-game, and had a few unexpected out-of-game moments. Here are a few of the lessons I learned while preparing and running this campaign.

Inspirations

The three biggest inspirations for the campaign were Larry Correia’s awesome Monster Hunter International books, Reality Blurs’ Agents of Oblivion campaign toolbox (here’s Phil’s review), and 1980s action movies.

How’d it work? Extremely well. The trio of inspiration, framework, and era really played well together.

  • Larry Correia is a gamer, and it shows. I particularly like his Gnomes, although I borrowed more ‘look and feel’ than actual details.
  • AoO is an excellent framework for a modern or near-future game. From the Resource Management tools to the Campaign Thematic Factors and other crunchy bits, it’s solid.
  • The 1980s was a lucky choice. Personal technology (cell phones, computers, etc.) is rare at best, and the tropes are well known. Terrorism and the intensifying Cold War provide a great backdrop. And the music makes a great gaming soundtrack.
  • For ‘gamers of a certain age,’ the 1980s is familiar territory. The game often came to a halt as we reminisced fondly about the era we were gaming in. This is a feature, not a bug.
  • There were a few hiccups. I should have used AoO’s resource management, and spent more time establishing the Anomalies’ (critters) stats and tactics.

Assumptions

The ‘cornerstone’ of the campaign world is that supernatural beings exist, but that humanity reverts to its baser instincts (fear, paranoia) when the population is aware of them. Secret organizations around the world anonymously combat supernatural beings and allow humanity to prosper in ignorant bliss.

The Anomaly Adjustment Agency is a covert organization established in 1981 by an assertive Reagan Administration (more on politics in a bit) to combat the rising number of supernatural incidents through the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Magic as we know it is virtually non-existent. Particularly talented individuals may perform rare and dangerous rituals, but that’s it.

How’d it work? Excellently. These simple assumptions kept the game balanced and fun, in my opinion.

  • Working covertly, the Agents had to personally track down and fight the Anomalies. The players were pretty creative at covering for themselves, and sometimes had to let individuals in on the ruse.
  • Being off the books, the Agency was subject to bureaucratic and political influence, sometimes funded by the very creatures they were fighting. This gave me a surprisingly powerful tool with which to direct the campaign.
  • The ‘no spells’ aspect works great in a modern campaign, and added to the ‘us vs. them’ tension of humanity against powerful supernatural beings.
  • Actual politics were minimized. ‘Nameless’ politicians generally supported or opposed the Agency, and although Reagan (and Gorbachev) did make an appearance towards the end, they were not editorialized.

Gameplay

Adventures varied between Metaplot (or Mytharc as Phil calls it here) and Monster of the Week episodes. Each type usually took multiple sessions to complete.

Prep was rarely more than a few notes and character sheets, and plot arcs were elevator pitch length. I relied heavily on improvisation or the players’ own discussions. I’m not good enough to improvise awesomeness, that’s Patrick’s bailiwick. I just directed traffic to where it seemed fun.

I tried to design an adventure or arc around each character’s background. More than once, I would ask that player for more details, and weave them into the story.

How’d it work? Mixed, but mostly positive. More than once, I had to take a break to reevaluate where the heck we could go from here. GMing on the fly allowed me to roll with a lot of the punches that might collapse a highly structured game (such as ‘accidentally’ blowing up the National Cathedral, or adopting a werewolf pack).

  • The varied adventure types worked like a charm. Sometimes I tied a MotW session into the metaplot after the fact.
  • My session notes were lacking, and I occasionally relied on a player’s shared notes. Lesson: Minimal prep does not mean minimal note-taking.
  • The players were an amazing resource. One of the most memorable sessions was an ambush in a parking garage. The players had all the cool ideas (parking garage, elevator, sprinkler system, creative use of the fire hose, etc.); I just added a twist or two.
  • We had a few flat sessions, which I take the blame for. Improv is good, but improv plus a backup plan is better.
  • The ‘character-centered’ adventures were solid, although I didn’t get to every player. I will be doing this every campaign from here on out.

Summary

This was one of the most enjoyable campaigns I’ve run, and will probably be revisited. If so, I’d make the following changes:

  • Move the start date to the mid-80s. The music is better, the styles are more defined, and the tropes are better established. Personal technology is a bit more available, but not ubiquitous.
  • Nail down the rules regarding the supernatural critters, particularly their weaknesses. Many of their weaknesses weren’t actually very exploitable, and many of them weren’t as dangerous as they should have been.
  • Spend more time on the BBEGs and their plans for World Domination™. The interplay between them could have been really cool, had I developed them a bit more.
  • Start the campaign after Never Unprepared is published, which would have resolved many of my planning failures.
  • Prevent the Ghoulish TPK and subsequent feast that happened fairly early on, although it did lead to much more powerful character builds.

Any questions or comments from my experiences? Do you sit down after your campaigns and conduct a formal AAR or ‘lessons learned’ session? Sound off in the comments, and let us know!

Image: My backpack, undisclosed location.

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."



20 Responses to After Action Report–Modern Horror Campaign

  1. At the risk of sounding stupid, I have a clarifying question: what system & system version did you use? I see the AoO as a campaign setting, but I’m not familiar with it as a system. I’ve run plenty of horror games in the past, using a variety of systems – WOD, d20, Cortex, and others – and I’m curious about what you used in this case.

    That aside, it sounds like you had a great experience. Is there any place online where this campaign is chronicled? I’ve been using the Obsidian Portal for a few years to handle all manner of jobs for my campaigns, and if you’ve got some sort of archive about this available, I’d like to read it.

    I’m about to run a short (3 session) horror game as a break from our regular campaign. I’m either going to set it in modern times (and now perhaps the 80s) or in the future – I think a horror/scifi blend could be interesting (haunted space station, anyone?).

    What was the most common tone of the game – grim or a little on the light side? I don’t mean campy (although maybe it was); rather, more of a ‘happy warrior’ feel, like in a classic monster movie, where the heroes are heroic, and act that way, rather than more grim, like the later seasons of Supernatural are (for the most part).

    Finally, here’s to DnD and summer camp…what would bus rides to the lake havebeen like without hordes of goblins to slay? Same game, same year – that brought back memories for me, too.

    • Agents of Oblivion (AoO) is a horror-espionage setting written and published by Reality Blurs for Savage Worlds.

    • We used Savage Worlds Deluxe, along with a few Agents of Oblivion tweaks, plus a few custom Edges and Hindrances.

      I generally statted up my own critters, but often used the ‘stock’ ones as a starting point.

      The vibe definitely had an edge of horror, but they PCs were definitely heroic and capable. Jokes were made, quite often, but the shock of a team of Wights in body armor with M16s can get your attention.

      We started by using a Google Site, but my lack of recordkeeping meant that it went a bit stale. A huge shout-out to Kristian Serrano for helping me set it up. I’d share it, but the site also includes a Google Groups plug-in for the email list, and some of that is private information.

      I sense an article on the Google Site in the near future…

  2. What a compelling article. For the record, relying on player notes is an absolute must in a situation when the GM is running on the fly. I mean, there’s really no opportunity for the GM to take notes during the course of play. As long as both sides of the table are OK with the situation, it seems like an ideal solution.

  3. Billboards Top 10 for 1980

    1 Blondie Call Me
    2 Pink Floyd Another Brick In The Wall
    3 Olivia Newton-John Magic
    4 Michael Jackson Rock With You
    5 Captain and Tennille Do That To Me One More Time
    6 Queen Crazy Little Thing Called Love
    7 Paul McCartney Coming Up
    8 Lipps, Inc. Funkytown
    9 Billy Joel It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me
    10 Bette Midler The Rose

    and for 1985 …
    Wham! Careless Whisper
    2 Madonna Like A Virgin
    3 Wham! Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
    4 Foreigner I Want To Know What Love Is
    5 Chaka Khan I Feel For You
    6 Daryl Hall and John Oates Out Of Touch
    7 Tears For Fears Everybody Wants To Rule The World
    8 Dire Straits Money For Nothing
    9 Madonna Crazy For You
    10 A-Ha Take On Me

    Sorry, but I’ll take 1980 over 1985 any day of the week. A double dose of Wham would be enough to send anyone packing. (Taste in music is more subjective that taste in roleplaying game systems!)

  4. Troy,

    You are leaving out 1983, the first year in which a metal album went to #1 on the Billboard chart – Quiet Riot’s ‘Metal Health.’ And 83/84 also gave us great albums by Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, and even Ozzy (dressed up as a bloated werewolf, no less). Don’t leave out the metal, my man…you’re only a few steps from ‘Muscrat Love’ with that ’80 list. Watch your back.

    • FWIW, I prefer the latter 80s music, mainly because there was so much variety to choose from. Euro synth-pop, American hair metal, college alt-rock, urban dance, late punk, pre-grunge rock, and rap without all the thuggery. You could have Mojo Nixon, Enya, Beastie Boys, and Metallica on a mix tape.

  5. I hate those “music was better” statements that prompt an immediate flurry of It Ain’t So responses.

    Chart-wise and radio airplay-wise, the early 1980s were a boil on the backside of music in the UK. The New Romantics swirled in with Punk. A total loss.

    So I came to the USA in mid ’84 and imagine my surprise at what the New York stations were playing: Classic Rock for the most part. And the music in general was good to the last drop until Rap and Hip-Hop began dominating the scene with doggerel set to stolen pieces of other peoples’ work (ducks to avoid hurled bricks).

    If you pick your orchard you can gather much good fruit from the 80s music scene. Lessee: Roxy Music reformed and put out three very good albums; Floyd melted down (I’m not a great fan of Roger Water’s Gloom Dooman Despondency works post Dark Side) and removed a source of personal irritation from the eardrums and paved the way for better material in the 90s; Dire Straights did their best work then imploded quietly; The Police did their best work then exploded violently; Yes briefly did some stuff that was popular, providing the impetus leading eventually to some of their best work since Close to the Edge a decade later; Queen reinvented themselves again (and another one’s gone); U2 – seriously, can you say you went through the 80s and never heard their singles everywhere you went? The Live Aid version of “Bad” (not the sanitized one that made the DVD but the one where the gittish stage management pulled the plug to stop it) stands as a true high point of 80s music. Woo! woo!

    Yaddayaddayadda.

    Kurt, most of your comments on your campaign could have been lifted from my own notes on my Delta Green thing, including the “never tried before bit”.

    I never thought Cthulhu Modern would be anything but a complete Ju-Ju Flop Situation. (“Hang on, I have a digital scan of the Necronomicon on my laptop with that spell we need highlighted and hyperlinked. Here it is: We need a goat, some robes and an enchanted dagger. I’ll call Sid on my cellphone and see if he can lend us his. To the petting zoo!”)

    I never thought D20 Call of Cthulhu would come close to giving the play value and buy-in that my beloved trad BRP version does. I mean, “levels”, “XP”, what’s up with that? And what in Azathoth’s name are “feats”?

    I never thought I’d be able to present Delta Green as written (I have so many issues with Tynes, Detwiller et al’s assumptions it beggars description).

    This game has run now for two and a half years of monthly sessions and has goaded me into some of my most creative scenario crafting. I still think Tynes, Detwiller et al over-thought the “issues” and their fixes for them are systemically problematical, but there’s no denying the quality of the setting.

    • I suspect that the setting can shine through the flaws of an overengineered system, especially in the hands of a GM who can gloss over the fiddly bits.

      The opening synth-percussion of “Bad” from the “Wide Awake…” EP still triggers an emotional reaction from me.

      • There’s an acoustic version by Luka Bloom you ought to hear. Almost got me kicked out of a store for loitering when it played over the P.A. because I had to hear it finish and find out who it was.

  6. Walt Ciechanowski

    I ran a 1980s campaign a couple years back that was totally radical and def! :-)

    Like Kurt, for most of my group it was a nostalgia trip and I tried to work in as many Eighties-isms that I could. It too was a modern fantasy campaign (WitchCraft) and I had stuff like the “demonic arcade game” and hair metal band cultists.

    I’m currently running a late 1950s game in the same vein that’s turning out to be even more fun. There is nothing more horrific in each session than seeing what mom makes for dinner!

  7. One question, I’d love to hear an elaboration on the last bit:

    “Prevent the Ghoulish TPK and subsequent feast that happened fairly early on, although it did lead to much more powerful character builds.”

    What caused the tpk and how did the feast result in much more powerful char builds?

    (I always enjoy hearing what players take from defeat in different games and how it influences both their future play style/chars and the GM’s approach to adventures.

    • The initial characters were a mixed bag, spread roughly equally between combat and non-combat skills. Modern settings generally don’t have a lot of armor options, so they weren’t terribly tough.

      They were met by a group of ghouls led by a vampire. There wasn’t much in the way of tactics, on either side. The ghouls’ paralysis ability was brutal, and a painfully slow TPK followed. Their next characters each had some kind of defensive ability or attribute, and most of them had some serious offense as well.

      For my part, afterwards I tweaked ghouls to be famished, and to start eating any paralyzed opponent instead of continuing to fight.

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply