A Rift Between Old Friends

Old Friends Cover showing six filmstrips with photographs of houses and people.
Cover image via DriveThru RPG.

Tonight we played Old Friends by Jason Morningstar and Ole Peder Giæver, a live-action roleplaying game about a team of ghost hunters reuniting 20 years after their last mission ended with the death of one of their own, Sara.

Our team of ghost investigators and eradicators consist of Pete, who served as the enforcer who protected us from the spirit world. He has become an adjunct professor of paranormality and recently learned he was terminally ill with cancer. He and Beth were married and together while the group operated, but their relationship was irrevocably broken when he caught her having an affair with a ghost. Beth was a con artist who never took the spirit world seriously, but she has gotten rich writing cynical tell-alls about ghosts and the people who love them. Solomon was the true believer, the die-hard toughened but haunted by intimate contact with the spirit world. He never stopped hunting and has become an impoverished eccentric sought out only by the desperate. He never liked Pete and the feeling was mutual. Genie was our resident scholar, knowledgable about all things paranormal, but after the group disbanded she became a corporate lobbyist for the oil industry advocating for fracking. She had originally recruited her best friend Hayden to be the leader of the group, but he dropped her completely when we split and they haven’t spoken in 20 years because he resents her ever bringing him into contact with the dead. He has since become a proud parent who just wants to keep his kids as far as possible from the dangerous world of ghosts and ghouls.

When we first arrived back at the primary school where Sara had met her end, we couldn’t believe we were all back together, but something had brought us to this place again at the same time. We went back and forth with accusations and explanations, making excuses, denials, justifications, alternately amused or disgusted by what each of us had become. Then Sara began to possess us, each time revealing more of what we’d left unresolved. That night, 20 years ago, Sara had been taken through a rift to the netherworld, claimed by a demon. Apparently, Sara, Beth, and Pete had made a deal with this demon that was supposed to close the rift forever, but Beth had tricked Genie and Hayden into signing without being aware of it, and had never gotten Solomon’s signature at all. The demon was to take one person’s soul in exchange for the success that Beth had bargained for, but the problem with the signatures meant the contract never went into effect. Instead, the demon came through the rift that night while we thought we were exorcising a teacher’s spirit. Hayden tried to protect himself with a large wrench, but struck Sara by mistake. With her unconscious, the demon could take her, body and all, to the nether realm. By the time we understood what was happening, it was too late.

Genie believes the rift may reopen at any time since the original contract was invalid. If that were to happen, all of humanity would be at risk. However, she thinks we can save Sara and close the rift permanently if someone willingly sacrifices themselves and exchanges places with her as part of a new contract. Hayden is ready to volunteer to forever protect his kids from the spirit world, and Pete is willing to die since he’s got so little time left anyway. Beth, however, will not agree to anyone sacrificing themselves. She doesn’t believe the demon will keep the bargain this time, despite being the architect of the original contract. We argue and fight but cannot come to agreement. We don’t know how to close the rift without a willing sacrifice and the knowing acceptance of all, and so we close our story with the group at an impasse, waiting for the rift to open, praying that it does not.

For the Ferocious Queen

For the Queen box with faces of two possible Queens, one soft and gentle and one smiling and ferocious.
Image Courtesy of Evil Hat Productions

This week we played For the Queen by Alex Roberts in which we form the retinue of a Queen traveling to make peace with our enemies from a distant land. It plays more like a board/card game with a story element than a roleplaying game, but the cards are beautiful and the gameplay straightforward, the game teaching you how to play it as you go. Each of our characters developed from the interaction with the game. Here are those characters and their stories: Queen’s Cook, Queen’s Groundskeeper, Queen’s Ward, Queen’s Knight, and Queen’s Counselor.

Queen’s Cook

The Cook saved the Queen’s live once, clumsily tripping as she came to serve her wine, saving her from the poison that had been secreted within. But the Queen knows the Cook possesses the gift of magic, rare and otherwise unknown, that she uses to protect the Queen by using ancient rituals to surround her with powerful protection wards. It may be these very wards that caused the Cook to trip that night. Others often grow jealous of the Cook because they don’t understand why the two spend so much private time together because the wards remain their secret. Most people think the Cook beautiful, which spurs more jealousy, but the Queen herself often mocks the Cook’s appearance, especially when they try to dress in finery and present themselves well. The Cook knows that serving the Queen can be dangerous because their brother died because of the Queen’s wars, a common soldier sent off on an ill-advised attack mission. And on the trip, the Cook sees the Queen murder an innocent guide who had told them the best route through dangerous enemy territory in order to keep that route secret and herself safe; the Queen diminished in their eyes then. However, the Cook still defended the Queen when she was attacked, using her magic and was prepared to cast the illusion that would disguise the Queen and put themselves in danger.

Queen’s Groundskeeper

The Queen’s Groundskeeper fell in love with her the first time he actually saw her. He had served her for a long time, ever since he had come to her land from the neighboring kingdom, but when he first saw her striding through her garden, her midriff bare and her power exuding, she stopped and praised his care of the flowers. He also served her by preparing her livery for the hunt, which was useful in preparing for this journey. At one point, she was so pleased with him that she promised him a place at court. He knows that the court will never accept him because of his accent and foreign origins, but clings to the hope that she will keep this pledge to him if he serves her well. The Queen’s style and verve have inspired him to make jewelry, although he has yet to feel confident enough to share his work with her. Instead, he has given her a flower that she keeps with her, leading him to believe he is her favorite. He gets nervous when she starts asking personal questions and making personal compliments, because he has noticed that unpleasant requests usually follow. On this voyage, we travel through his homeland, and while he would like to stay and see his family, he will not abandon his Queen and his chance to improve his station at court. So, of course, when the Queen was attacked, the Groundskeeper leapt to her defense by releasing her snakes and deploying a dreamcatcher because he knows the power we travel to, our enemies are Dream Eaters and cannot be trusted.

Queen’s Ward

Her family sent her to live with the Queen as her Ward when she was only a child, so her place at court is secure and she has been trusted for years. Although most believe her to be silly child, the Queen has told her that she always makes wise decisions, and has put her in charge of all the children at court, including the Queen’s heirs. There are no children on this trip to the Dream Eaters, so she entertains the Queen by drawing caricatures in charcoal for her. It’s just as well that the children are gone, for the Ward does not want the Queen’s kindness to guide her on this trip. Her family had originally sent her to court to protect her from the Dream Eaters all those years ago, but they also told her that their beautiful Queen would be the great Vanquisher who would one day destroy their ancestral enemies. Will this day be that day? If the the Queen and her snakes show their ferocity, then it may. The Queen’s Ward jumped at the chance to show her mettle when the Queen was attacked.

Queen’s Knight

The Queen’s Knight knew her even before she was Queen. They had adventured together when she was a princess, and she had saved his life more than once. Gossip at court suggests they had a romantic relationship during those years, but when she summoned him to court to serve as her Knight and bodyguard, she treated him with as much regal haughtiness and distance as anyone, even when they were in private. The rumors were renewed when the Queen knocked the Knight from his horse during a hunt and continued to rough house with him in ways more familiar than the courtiers thought proper. On the road, the Knight ruthlessly kills a group of ambushers, to the Queen’s disappointment. She is determined to find a means to peace with the adversary, but she doesn’t know how much this has disappointed her Knight and protector. But, despite this tension, when the Dream Eaters attack, the Queen’s Knight does not hesitate to again draw his sword and defend her.

Queen’s Counselor

The Queen’s Counselor is a beauty from a distant land, a foreigner whose exotic looks many in the court find hideous, but the Queen insists that people accept her for her difference is what makes her valuable. She has placed her prominently in the court, announcing her entrances and calling her many names, so all must look up on the Counselor often. Despite this prominence, she knows she is not the Queen’s favorite, suspecting that she dotes upon the Ward most of all. Instead, the Counselor secretly loves another in the court and hides it by treating them with disdain, to protect her feelings from the Queen’s narcissistic jealousy and neediness. She has seen how the enemies spies and assassins bring out the Queen’s cruelty—she has watched as the Queen tortured them in the snake pit—and finds that cruelty ugly and inhumane. The Queen punished the Counselor once by locking her away in a small room and ordered her to translate some ancient scrolls, giving her no sustenance until she completed the difficult task. Perhaps that is why she gave in when strangers threatened her family, her actual family and their home, if she did not aid them in their ambush of the Queen on the road. She thought it the only way to protect her family, but she also knew the retinue would protect the Queen. She brought her own pet panther on a possibly-magical leash on the trip and unleashed it to protect the Queen when she was attacked.

Idols Under a Microscope

Tonight we played Microscope by Ben Robbins and pulled from the lurking darkness oracle to find our premise: the spread of primitive artifacts conceal graven images. Our world was magical rather than technological, flat but two-sided, and characterized by levity more than madness. Our timeline began with the archeological dig at which the artifacts were uncovered and continued until humanity embraced their darkest desires. We focused first on Love, then the love idol itself, then the Flip Side of our flat world, then humanity’s darkest desires, and finally humanity’s noblest ideals. Here is the history we created.

Gaming table showing index cards laid out in a tableau and the Microscope quick guide.

At the archeological dig, one idol uncovered was an idol of love that no one had expected. Later, two workers at the site, Jamie and Alex, met and found love while vying for a spoon. Their love became a legend passed down through the ages. The first writings about the Inverse Land on the flip side of the world were also found by the archeologists. Soon after, a collection of artifacts toured the world . When the kindness idol went on display, compassion and goodwill spread across the city in waves of good feelings. But then the King and Queen of one land died while hosting the idol of love in their palace. Some time later, as each idol had developed a cult around itself, the war of the cults erupted across the lands. Romeo led his cult to seize the love idol from a rival cult leader thanks largely to the garbled communication of the messenger guild and general incompetence. The Idol Futures Exchange was first opened during the war because if you’re going to have a war, you ought to at least make money from it. Later, star-crossed lovers Romeo and Mercutio perfected a technique for flying to facilitate their secret rendezvous. When this method first spread through the world, a crime wave ensued and gang warfare gripped the lands.

Due to an unknown crisis, people formed caravans to rush to the edge of the world seeking to get to the flip side. This caused the world to tilt on its axis as the entire population collected at the same edge. While this was happening, Becky’s thirteenth birthday party and guests all disappeared into a portal to the other side, and the original Love Idol disappeared from our lands. After the near disaster of our world flipping over, people were more judicious in their exploration of the Inverse Lands but this lead to many mysteries and unsolved disappearances, despite these missions being undertaken in a spirit of curiosity and exploration. One group was turned back by Charles Irwin and his mole people, who treated them like an invading army by turning the Inverse Land’s mechanical horrors upon them.

This lead humanity to embrace our noblest ideals, guided by the examples of Jaime & Alex, and by the story of Becky and her sacrifice. But Becky’s brother Timothy and rival Other Becky became an item and returned from the Inverse Lands seeking a fortune. When they were discovered to be smuggling catnip and other animal intoxicants, we abandoned our noblest ideals and took the first steps toward our darkest desires. Later one cult’s head monk ordered the mass production of love idols out of bone and for them to be distributed to the entire population. This flooding of the market lead to the collapse of the entire Idol Futures market, and mass hysteria as brokers committed suicide to escape their losses. At this moment of crisis, one idol apostate wrote and distributed a manifesto that converted masses of dejected idol worshipers to a life guided only by desire. This unleashing of raw passion rapidly left only two people alive in our lands, but they managed to kill each other in a flying duel armed with a hatchet and a spoon and a fatal fall.