…was the founding principle of the second group of stalkers to enter the Zone.
Asking each player to a) explain the “deepest desire” of their character, and b) work up a series of interrelationships from that impetus seems to produce the goods.
The group was led by Queen Rat (Christel) – a Pre-Gen unused during the prequel we played at the Mini-Campaign Indiemeet organised by Epistolary Richard last month – who’d had more than enough of former boss Žižek regularly traducing her work, stealing her research and refusing to grant her even a modicum of the respect her expertise in Gravioconcentrates deserved. Žižek – an egotist and an alcoholic – had similarly alienated the rest of the party, having threatened stalker and sound recordist Weno (James) with legal action after claiming his voice had appeared on one of Weno’s recordings, experimented on Latch Key Kid (Sridat) – another Pre-Gen, dual-gendered and mysteriously Changed by her time in the Zone – and, not least, cited fixer Elm (Tom) in a published paper on Geographically Induced Credulity (GIC) which ridiculed the former security expert’s newly-found religious beliefs.
This time round we used tokens to denote the spending of attributes and chose a new motif – transformation – and a new theme – resolution – for our story. Every suggestion the players made improved the game.
It soon became clear that Žižek had his eyes on a new Artefact that had appeared in Zone Toulouse, and clearer still that Queen Rat had both the know-how and the equipment to beat him to the punch. A Merger, it seemed, was capable of combining any form of matter with any other when subjected to temperatures very close to absolute zero or those hot enough to produce nuclear fusion. Queen Rat had the portable laboratory with which to achieve this but there was a catch: the only place the Merger had been seen was at the Mausoleum (Stalker rulebook, p214), a place littered with the bones of 6,000 dead, and at which a new Inorganism had also been sighted: the Night-Axe, a thing of darkness and disembodied carcasses and, like the Smoking Mirror artefact that had made Žižek’s reputation, named from Aztec mythology. Three previous missions had been sent from the Institute on Žižek’s behalf; none had returned.
Story Arc by Ville Vuorela: I can vouch for the fact that this is an excellent way to structure a Stalker narrative.
Queen Rat recruited a former security officer – Elm – from the Canadian Zone at Harmont as the fixer to get her in and out of the French Zone without being noticed by Žižek’s friends at the Institute, and two stalkers, the first of which – Latch Key Kid – had contacts inside the Zone, and the second – Weno – sound equipment capable of hearing the dread whispers of Night-Axe from a distance.
The party, however, ran into problems from the off. The “door” long-used in the fence between the Dead Alleys and the Soot Quarter – the same, in fact, they had used with their previous set of characters in the prequel – had been repaired, and a new CCTV camera had been set to observe the electrified mesh. They also observed a large air-vehicle going into the Zone – they chose not to spend any attributes to find out more – and portable camera-drones alongside it. Elm noticed that the personnel at the nearest tower had been doubled – four guards, not two – and Latch Key Kid was forced to use her connection to the Kids with Guns to create a distraction.
With the difficulty level of the Challenge rising by the instant – only two of the four guards had been drawn to the disturbance created by the Kids with Guns – Weno was forced to use a recording of the guards taunting one of their own number – “Chacal” – to distract the attention of the two remaining in the tower while Elm cut a hole in the fence. He and Queen Rat squeezed through but the party quickly found themselves triangulated by disaster.
From the east came the Burning Man (Stalker, p157), an Inorganism long suspected to be attracted by heat and light, leaving a trail of bush-fire in its wake; from the west, Weno discerned the distant whisper of the Night-Axe, enticed, it seemed, by the panic and the terror; while from above came the search light of the tower, missing Elm as he drew his poncho over his head, but tracing the route of Weno and Queen Rat as they bolted toward the Soot Quarter.
Queen Rat shot out the search light with her pistol and Weno – finally – spent an attribute to rendezvous with Elm by an abandoned van at the outskirts of the Soot Quarter. An understandably-panicked Latch Key Kid – “Night Axe!” screamed the kids, before running – had, meanwhile, sprinted deep into the Zone, the only direction from which no discernible threat loomed. That’s when s/he noticed something flickering in the shadows of the flames left by the Burning Man: it was a Black Dog, an Inorganism notorious for feeding on the negative emotions of its targets by joining and deepening their shadows. There was no shaking the shade off once it had a hold on you.
Latch Key Kid decided to sacrifice her pet monkey – so useful, so cuddly, so kind – to the Black Dog, casting the too-too-sweet simian in front of her as the Inorganism loomed: it melded to the dark reflection of the monkey rather than to hers. The monkey still had its eyes on its former companion and keeper, however, and they were hungry eyes, eyes resolved to continue its pursuit of the good life, and something was wrong: the bones of the monkey clattered, it called out, “Ee-ee-ee!” – many thanks to Sridat for the monkey impression – and it seemed that some kind of unholy transformation between monkey and shadow had occurred – its Replica (Stalker, p154) and Black Dog merged to form some terrible new entity.
Latch Key Kid ran and ran and ran. Stalker Weno used his knowledge of the Zone and the narrative rights gained from spending the relevant attribute to reach the well-known oasis of the Tower (Stalker, p214), there finding Latch Key Kid splayed out asleep, apparently dreaming peacefully.
Sridat had been kind enough to invite us to his place in Tufnell Park after we’d found the pub in Piccadilly too noisy; looks like the next session will be at Christel’s place in Bermondsey. We had a quick chat about what kind of dénouement we wanted from the story – the metaphysical pay-off of the prequel hadn’t quite satisfied – and we agreed we wanted a material solution to the survival horror set-up. What is the Night-Axe and where does it come from? Can Queen Rat put her hands on the Merger without awakening the horror? And what was the large air-vehicle the PCs saw entering the Zone earlier?