RPPR Episode 110: The Final Revelation Post Mortem

RPPR_B-sidesNews: RPPR B-Sides Volume 2 is now available! Get 24 actual play episodes and help support RPPR. This volume has playtests, con games, and more! In other news, Boiling Point is still being worked on as is the Sparkles supplement for Base Raiders. Also, Gen Con 2015 event submission has opened up. Contact Arc Dream if you want to run games and get a free badge and product.

Synopsis: The Final Revelation is the shortest complete campaign we’ve run at RPPR, but its complexity and depth merits a good post mortem discussion. Caleb, Aaron, and I discuss our experiences playing and running the game, purism vs pulp in cthulhu mythos gaming, player agency in RPG design, and other related topics. Tom wasn’t able to make this episode so no letter but we do have shout outs and a very special anecdote about shark fighting.

Shout Outs

  • Escape Goat 2: A great puzzle game about a magical goat and his mouse BFF.
  • Silver Screen Fiend: A new book from Patton Oswalt about his addiction to cinema.
  • Bad Robots: A UK prank show themed around malfunctioning technology.
  • Concrete Grove: Not quite a solid recommendation, but I read the entire book for what that’s worth.
  • Whiplash: A film about jazz, abuse, and obsession.
  • Tokyo Ghoul: an anime about the occult, cannibalism, and milquetoast student protagonists. Breaking new ground in anime tropes!
  • Touch of Cloth: A hilarious cop show parody similar to Police Squad, but way, way dirtier.

Song: A Dark Revelation by Dusk’s Embrace

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  1. 14 minutes in. “Where’s your Essential Salts now, bitch?” quote on a T shirt with the Killsplosion guy holding an AK faded in the background. Gencon 2015

  2. Aaron death supercut you say? I needed motivation to comb the full archive, so thank you. Off I go, see you when the world ends!

  3. The more and more I listen to RPPR the more I want to sit in on a game and watch the beautiful chaos and abstract logic unfold before my eyes. Like I don’t even have to play, just give me some popcorn and a chair in the corner and let me just laugh my ass off.

    Also, as Twisting H says, we need RPPR shirts to be a thing.

  4. Good discussion regarding this unique campaign. I think overall it sticks to its guns and focuses on doing the purist style well, regardless of player expectation. Overall, I think it succeeds, and it is definitely an experience that role-players should try.

    Speaking of mind-wrecking bleak horror, I made the mistake of taking a full dose of DAYquil before going to bed with a cold instead of NYquil. . . and as fate would have it, the Unedited Footage of a Bear was on Adult Swim when I finally gave up fighting vigor and decided to watch TV. . .

    MY. GOD. That experience could have turned ME into a Friday Group member. O_O

  5. I get through APs so fast because I invest in radial play/pause headphones and global hotkeys in iTunes/FUBAR. any time my verbal centers aren’t occupied, I switch a podcast on, and I can turn em off again soon as I need to think in words again. I still haven’t gotten through all of the B-Sides 2! but that’s mostly because gumroad appears to hate my connection. I’ve listened to the amazing first Killsplosion playtest two or three times and have no idea why it didn’t make it to the main podcast. so good. pry one of my favorite things you guys have ever done. the sheer high-octane absurdity and the undertested but really “gamey” and instantly graspable mechanics were enthralling. that one’s a goddamn keeper.

    and omg I must agree with everyone at the table that the idea of moving the narrative breakdown Watchers game to the end would be SUCH A GOOD IDEA. I had a moment of real joy at the thought that has lingered. I can touch that coal even now! I like Caleb’s justification for why he like the campaign, but it still left me coming away feeling…nothing. the scenarios just stirred nothing in me. it wasn’t even an aching sense of void, just…no response. as Ross mentions here and I think I said on the episodes, they feel more like short stories you can walk through than games. which is…fine? as far as it goes? but I’d rather read them as short stories than as games. the tone would be much starker without the jokesterism of a table. and I like the jokesterousness! I started listening to APs because they’re high comedy! but in the context of a bleak scenario, I think it undermines that bleakness fiercely. I can’t listen to a game scenario full of meta humor and come away feeling bleak (I still think Preemptive Revenge is the only horror game I’ve ever heard or read that actually scared me).

    good goddamn call, though, Aaron, about that scenario being at the end. I can’t get over how brilliant that is. it would give the campaign a tiny sense of cohesiveness and double-unravel that cohesion at the same time. so good. so good. all of my +1. I wonder if maybe Rending Box should be second and Dance should be third, too? that way you get the Dying “there are horrific things out there and you can’t win against them” moment, then the Rending Box “no, seriously, horrors are EVERYWHERE” moment, then the Dance “AND EVERYWHERE INCLUDES INSIDE OF YOU” moment, and finally the Watchers “and you are powerless to understand any of it” moment.

  6. Still listening, but comment…

    So I think it is worth noting that actually you do have a lot of agency in these scenarios.

    It just isn’t agency over the outcome of the plot, it is agency in how your characters deal with the horror. The way that the Investigators face the madness is the thing that really matters in the story.

  7. Caleb’s rant about how awesome the watchers in the sky in the sky is based on the ‘fuck you, narrative!’ element, basically covers my thoughts on it.

    Also aaron’s “the narrative dies with you” tangent is so perfect.

  8. as an aside, Rag-Nerd-Rok also ran Dying, and it went 100% exactly the same identical to the way RPPR’s run did almost to the word, -even though the characters had different backstories and were looking for different people.- so. y’know. for anyone saying players have agency in these stories, there’s that. they really don’t. it’s a series of short stories you walk through masquerading as investigations. as Caleb pointed out, you don’t need numbers in this game, and I’m not sure you even need Sanity. the GM could really just fiat you “you’re an archaeologist, you know this,” or “you see your dead sister crumble into coherent ash, you feel this.” the system’s a veneer in Final Rev.

  9. Crawlkill, they do have agency. It just isn’t over the outcome of the story.

    They get to decide how they approach it. The spine of the investigation remains the same, the outcome short of death a weird choice is set. But the manner in which they face their doom, is something they get to decide, something they have agency over.

  10. Also there is a deal of agency over the manner in which you explore the scenario. There is apath of least resistence for the clues, but you can certainly move from it as part of the exploration of the mystery.

  11. It really wouldn’t be that hard to write a Final Revelation-style wraparound for No Security and run it for your group, would it? The written-up Lover in the Ice places all sorts of creepy references to the other adventures in Whitehead’s storage unit. When Whitehead’s checks stop coming in, the players go in to take inventory of his stuff before it’s all sold at auction.

  12. Sky one is the primary channel of the Sky plc TV, which was founded by Rupert Murdock(making it inherently evil, i do hope your pirating it 😉 ). It was either the original, or one of the earliest subscription television services in the UK, and remains the largest.

  13. I like the shark fighting. I think that anecdote perfectly captures the special things that both Ross and Aaron bring to the table, coming together into a magical combination. Ross brings the crazy, crazy plan, and Aaron brings the selfless commitment to see it through to the bitter end.

    On The final Revelation: one thing that I think makes an “anti-narrative” scenario harder in an RPG than in a short story is the separation between players and characters. If the narrative gets intentionally confusing, the players are likely to be personally confused and start thinking about their own confusion rather than their characters’ confusion. So they’ll be distracted away from trying to depict in-character reactions. I think that’s what happened in The Rending Box pretty badly, and to some extent in Watchers too (maybe more so for Ross than some of the other players)

    I’m currently kicking around an idea for a pretty confusing horror scenario myself (Civil War Carcosa? Eh, Ross?), and it seems to me that it’ll be quite a challenge to avoid this pitfall.

  14. Aaron, I love the way you play! Never change!

  15. I’m totes drawing up that t-shirt design.

    I really enjoy these post-mortems.
    Also, this Shanghai’ed game cant come soon enough! XD

  16. I think Ethan makes a good point. it’s akin to why action/puzzlers can be frustrating: if you’re repeatedly fucking up your goat escape or whatever, is it because you’ve got the -strategy- wrong, or because you’re goatjumping half a second too late? I think a confusing RPG, as Ethan says, has that same two-level confusion, where players don’t know if they’re playing the game wrong or if confusion is the intent.

  17. So… we’ve gone from the ‘dog punching incident’… to the ‘shark stabbing incident’? I knew we were in trouble when I heard ‘called shots to the gills’.

  18. I think both Ethan and crawkill make an interesting observation, but I’ll add one thought to that: is that blurring/confusion necessarily a negative critique of the game/scenario? In education, a common theme (at least lately) is to encourage teachers to get a “shot of the uncomfortable” in order to keep their perspectives/expectations fresh and adaptable and so they don’t become pedagogically lazy. Whether a player fully enjoys this or not, wouldn’t such an experience be beneficial for GMs/players just to try something so radically different?

    If nothing else, this campaign definitely encourages great discussion about tabletop role-playing games. And for that, I have to love it.

  19. right, but if you can’t go behind the scenes and explain your intent to your pupil in a way that satisfies them, I’m not sure you’ve succeeded in that. even a deconstruction of narrative is going to take narrative form in the audience’s mind, because they’ve absorbed it as a series of events. even David Lynch’s weirder movies have threads you can pluck at. here, I think Aaron and Caleb, synthesized, get it exactly right: Caleb wants to subvert Cthulhu monster boredom and sense-making, which in a campaign is actually best done by -reinforcing- it and then laughing your players all the way to Azathoth.

    and Aaron’s right that the scenario order is wrong for that: three of the four scenarios actually embrace and reinforce Mythos entities, whether it’s the Color or Dhols or Shub-Niggurath. and the powerful thing there is that whatever order you present them in they feel like escalation: “I’m a monster, the world is a monster, even space is a monster,” or “there are monsters, the whole world is a monster, shit, even -I- am a monster” (my favorite order). the one story that breaks that cycle of recognition, escalation and letdown is Watchers, because by making so little sense it suggests that -everything- is monsters, or that the universe is a psychoactive nightmare. which is right where the epilogue goes.

    I think the frame story is so great because it suckers people into thinking that maybe the things they’re learning will give them the power to Do Something About It–certainly I had thought at first that there’d be a “final adventure” in the frame era where the players would have at least the foolish hope of being able to stop whatever was Coming. having a short 20-minute vignette at the end of Rending Box, where we just learned what we already knew, that the Old Ones are the Earth, just puts an ‘and you lose’ on top of the standard ‘humanity is doomed’ game over Lovecraft implied seventy years ago. having it follow a nonsense scenario where the PCs are so helplessly ignorant that they can’t even understand the nature of their failure to misunderstand is a one-two punch that simultaneously dissolves whatever meta-knowledge the players were still trying to cling to for safety.

    “the mountain is Shub-Niggurath” is an old story–Fungi from Yuggoth had a living hill. one of Lovecraft’s better poems, actually, kinda folksy. “the whole world is a writhing infectious meta-being infested with horrors beyond your ability to begin to comprehend” is the aesthetic that keeps people coming back to Lovecraft, and it’s one that doesn’t get reforged or improved upon often enough.

    but if you want to tell a 15-hour story, the denouement, the hard-hitting thesis that clinches it and dissolves it, needs to come at the end, not second of four.

  20. I just listened to the Rending Box before listening to this one.

    I was really surprised by the monster mash aspect at the end, especially given how focused the other scenarios were. What I really expected was a continuing breakdown of the character’s perception like the (great) floating scenes of cancer dogs and pork.

    By the end, I expected that the characters would start seeing ghastly things as normal, so I felt a really strong sense of dread when the boy and old man showed up. The cultist angle was relatively mundane by comparison.

    Generally it felt like the box/perception angle fell by the wayside at the end, which was a shame because it was very cool.

    Anyways, I had heard a lot about these adventures – it was really cool to hear them actually played and I’ll probably run at least one of them myself.

  21. Another cool thing I noticed running through the scenarios were people being dead (or at least, they should be) and just … going on anyways. Decaying bodies whispering to characters in the first and second scenarios; the wireless and the amazing suicide party in the third, and the cold, eyeless contact in the fourth. Not to mention everyone finding their own bodies in the framing story.

    I thought that was a really cool way to hammer home the inevitability and the cyclical nature of the stories.

    On a different note, I think a DramaSystem/Hillfolk game with you guys would be phenomenal – though it’s definitely better suited for a few games rather than a one-shot. This is especially true if you generate the characters from scratch as a group, that takes up about a short session’s worth of time.

    If you were more in the mood for silliness in addition to drama, “The Whateleys” series pitch seems pretty well up RPPR’s alley.

  22. I think I said it on the AP itself but my favorite moment of the entire campaign by far was Ross realizing it’d been the same date in the frame every session. getting to share in that little revelation was glorious. that’s a WHAT THE FUCK moment that requires patience and a straight face on the GM’s part for so long, and you’re banking on your players figuring it out on their own or it’s all for nothing, but if they do, you get a parrot-level branding in the audience’s memory.

  23. Another shirt idea: Shotgun crossed with a bundle of dynamite. A green triangle in the center. A scroll in a circle around it with the motto “Don’t read the books stupid” in Latin. Make it look like a school crest.

    Adding my voice to the choir of damn good idea Aaron!

  24. Caleb throws out a surprisingly common misconception about Lovecraft in the middle of this episode.

    Lovecraft did not use big words because he was paid by the word. Lovecraft was only rarely paid – most of his stories were not written for publication, and were only submitted for publication at the urging of his friends or after his death. A lot of published Lovecraft stories, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, are actually unpolished stories that he never intended to see the light of day.

    Of the works published in Lovecraft’s lifetime, a lot of them were published in amateur publications that didn’t actually pay anything.

    If Lovecraft had just been trying to get more money, he wouldn’t have used long words, because it’s faster and easier to just write a whole lot of little short words.

    In my opinion, Lovecraft’s style is underappreciated. It’s unique, its distinctive, it’s difficult for many people to read, and it’s been terribly pastiched time after time. It’s not the kind of thing to recommend to a student or starting author as a model to imitate (then again, what writer is?). However, Lovecraft does a really great job of creating and maintaining atmosphere throughout most of his pieces, even when using a conceit that would appear silly in lesser hands (like the explorers in AtMoM learning the history of the Elder Things from a wall-mural). Lovecraft is trying to depict horrors beyond human comprehension — he’s not trying to depict a particular thing beyond human comprehension, he’s trying to convey the experience of perceiving any horror beyond human comprehension, even though, by definition, he can’t imagine what the actual horror is. One technique that he uses to do this is giving descriptions so thorough that in the end they mystify more than clarify, but it’s the opposite of lazy writing. Smarter critics and better authors than myself have said the same thing – that Lovecraft’s style is actually quite good – more clearly than I can; there are some decent defenses of his style to be found in the field of Lovecraft criticism (as well as lots of terrible stuff – Sturgeon’s Law, after all). Or, for that matter, Lovecraft’s own story “The Unnameable”.

  25. L’esprit de l’escalier strikes again – one more stylistically-appreciated author with a style similar to that of Lovecraft is Joseph Conrad.

  26. I’ll throw in the first of my two cents just on the comments here, and save the other for related to the episode itself.

    As noted by crawlkill, Rag-Nerd-Rok did their own run of “Dying” recently, which functionally proceeded the same way as the RPPR run. Not all the details were the same, but ultimately, their choices had about the same meaning.

    Which is something I will say when saying that you have “agency” in certain scenarios. I’d almost compare it to something like the Stanley Parable, which is a great examination of some ideas about narrative tropes (though as they relate to video gaming). One can easily argue that the only proper way to “win” the Stanley Parable is to shut it off and stop playing the game. Even if you do actions to subvert the game, you are only continuing to play the game’s meta-game commentary. Ultimately, all your pathing is meaningless, though it’s a lot funnier than any of the Final Revelation scenarios are intrinsically. But, on the other hand, the only choice that could possibly impact anything is the choice to not play. However, this would be double counter-intuitive, because one, your characters do not have good reason not to play (and if they encounter enough reason to run away, that’s probably following the scenario, if it’s even possible) and since you’re sitting down to this collaborative story-telling “game” (I say that in some ways, “Dying” and similar “purist” scenarios aren’t very game-like, they’re more like CYOA books) and there’s some guy with a grin on his face sitting on the other side of a book or a screen, you probably don’t want to just call it a night and play Cards Against Humanity either. Another example might be PT. PT is a “game” (kind of. There’s stuff to do and a bit of a trick to it) which forces you to do stuff you really don’t want to do to keep going and get to whatever the end-goal is. It’s not necessarily an experience you enjoy, but unless you want to stop doing it, your only real choice is to go forward with it.

    So I guess I’m drawing an analogy where if you put PT inside the Stanley Parable, the hypothetical result would resemble what I feel Final Revelation seems kind of like.

    I think Final Revelation’s scenarios are interesting. Depending on your group, they’re worth trying out. They have interesting points, especially as they relate to the genre. Trail has it’s individual merits, which I appreciate it for. But if the point is to model a certain futility, and it succeeds, then it models futility. Let’s not bandy about how it’s not actually futile. You have agency to decide what your character is wearing, is that a purposeful, meaningful choice? Probably not. Can it be entertaining? Sure. That’s all stuff you bring to it though, the scenario isn’t written to incorporate that. While I haven’t read them directly, I assume it follows my CYOA analogy above, which would be “spend points, get clues, conclude this, move on”. (and I mean no offense here. I really liked the actual CYOA books as a kid) The idea of “agency” isn’t intrinsically supported by the scenarios, at least not to my interpretation from listening to them. All that stuff is something you bring to it. And since you bring that element to any game, it’s kind of a universal constant you can pull out when examining the scenario on it’s own merits.

    I don’t mean anything bad by Final Revelation, Trail or Gumshoe in this. Different strokes, and all. They’re all interesting ideas, which I think accomplish their goals, but I don’t think its for everyone.

    Also, I generally agree with stuff crawlkill said.

  27. I’ve read a playthrough of “Dying of St. Margarets” on YSDC that went very differently than the RPPR one; just because two groups of AP podcasters did it the same way, that doesn’t mean there’s only one way. In the playthrough I read, after everyone found the black hole machine, PC conflict lead to them killing each other. The RPPR playthrough used the pregens, even though the scenario says you don’t have to use them; if Rag-Nerd-Rok also used the pregens, that would explain a lot of the similarities.

    Characters in “The Final Revelation” have exactly as much agency as the average, real-life person like you or me. They can’t change the world. They’re not going to save it. When the world changes, they have to cope, not the other way around. And sometimes, there’s more than they can cope with. That’s life for the majority of humanity. Does that mean all our lives are futile and meaningless? Some would say yes. But, when a crisis hits, even if they can’t stop it or fix it, not everyone in a neighborhood or community acts the same way.

    The PCs in “Dying of St. Margarets” have lots of choices. They can try to destroy the black-hole machine, use it, or ignore it. They can try to burn down the school, or go on a murderous rampage so at least the survivors are forced to leave and nobody builds on the “haunted island” for a while. Characters with sufficient credit rating or the right connections – not the pregens, but normally created Trail characters – could have left the school and gotten it closed much earlier than the eventual closing. The characters can give up and kill themselves, or take refuge in alcohol, in drugs (especially if someone had a medical background), even in each other’s arms. They can go insane in a huge number of different ways. They can decide to stay and keep teaching until exhaustion destroys them, since there’s no point in doing anything else. Or, if they have survived, they can just leave, look for a life somewhere else, and try to forget. Do any real people have more options in their life?

  28. So, I’ve just realized a simpler way to put my point.

    You react to the scenario, the scenario does not react to you. It pitches a situation which forces you to have a reaction, which can be interesting if you’re all doing it right and into it, but your reaction is pointless, it means nothing in the context of the scenario. It’s narrative (or lack their of, with Watchers) will continue, regardless of your output to its input. This makes it a great example of a purist story, but does put it into a kind of “interactive story” situation.

    In the pulp kinds of scenarios mentioned, there is a narrative, where if you fail at your reaction or do not react, it will continue unaided (which is usually bad), but there is a possibility to have the scenario react to you (and have something terrible happen to you along the way).

    Now, if that distinction is not Agency, then somebody give me another word to call it.

  29. I define player agency as ability to interact with a games dramatic question through meaningful choices.

    In the case of dying, the dramatic question is “how do you react to an encounter that destroys meaning in your life.”

    Having control over if the scene that possess the dramatic question takes place, does not help to answer that question, in this case.

    Dying does allow an almost free hand in answering the dramatic question. In fact it devolves into free form storytelling at the end. Now i am not against the shedding of game elements at this point, but others might.

  30. I listened to the first half of this recap while suffering what turned into a full blown all night long fever. Let me tell you that endlessly rehashing the generational spanning cult rituals that my fevered brain conjured made for an interesting night.

    It all makes sense now… Everything happens on the same date… time is parallel…

    Thanks! I needed a dose of altered consciousness, it has been far too long.

    I think if I had made it all the way to the shark-punching things would have gone quite differently last night. (Endlessly trying to stab a shark with a pocket knife.)

  31. I think Omega’s Stanley Parable comparison is fantastic, and CharlieChaplain’s dismissal is a lil bit facile.

    the whole point of Final Revelation games is -how they turn out.- if agency creates player conflict that prevents the PCs from getting to the (anti)climax, then the point is not reinforced. if the Dance characters had all gotten into a brawl when they denied relation to one another in the first scene and then been hospitalized, the bleakness would not have materialized. that strikes me as a flaw.

    if you end Dying by all dying at the wormhole machine, you’re left with a sense that there -was- meaning there, and you just didn’t reach it. to achieve the actual intended tone of the scenario, you need to run it again or get spoilers from somewhere. as much as I hate SPOILARS culture, this is definitely a game that benefits from players who don’t know what’s coming, because they get that CoC sense of hope and agency and have it crushed.

    I think these games -deliberately- have limited agency. I think that’s part of the point. if these games have a point, it’s that investigation is always the wrong choice in a malign universe. the more you know, the more things stay the Mythos. ignorance, as the Providence Racist himself reminded us, is the only defense. if you avoid revelation in these games, you also avoid existential despair. dying over a wormhole artifact at least has -some- meaning.

  32. I think Aaron had the right order to the scenarios.

    I enjoyed the hell out of the scenarios, depressive endings(including the framing device) and all.

  33. I’m very happy to hear that you all enjoyed the framing scenario. Graham’s scenarios set the bar very high and I was worried that I may not be able to maintain the tone.

    The comparison with the old Tales From the Crypt film was spot-on — I’m a huge fan of those old Amicus anthology films and they were a very conscious influence on structure of The Final Revelation.

    I agree that the epilogue could benefit from being longer. Unfortunately I was a bit limited by word count, otherwise I would have stretched out the dissolution of reality more. I’d like to think that some sadistic Keepers have gone to town with that ending!

  34. After 5 months of waiting to unleash this new ‘Narrative dies with you’ ending on the world, I finally have the group to inflict it on. I have run into one hiccup, struggling to come up with what cracks in reality will happen after the Rending Box if it is the second one in the sequence. Watchers has the deformities, any suggestions of what could be thrown in to shatter some sanities?

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