Midwest GameFest, Pt. 7 (Dread)

It’s become a tradition at local gaming conventions that my friend Matt runs his Dread game in the Sunday morning slot. It’s traditionally kind of dead the morning of the last day, what with everyone having been up so late the previous couple days. I got lucky this time and Daylight Saving came through just after our Soth¬†game and blessed us with another hour of sleep.

The twist this year was Matt adapted a Dark Heresy adventure he ran a long time ago for Dread, building an atmosphere of danger and inevitability to our exploring a derelict warship and following on the heels of a dangerous daemon. It was a blended team of Inquisitors racing against the clock to retrieve an Imperial artifact and save this ship in On a Collision Course with Destiny. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Warhammer 40,000, it’s one of the landmark war games and has spawned books, video games, and a couple different RPGs. The setting assumes the interstellar expansion of humanity that has brought it into violent conflict with aliens, mutants, and daemons from the Chaos realms that threaten your sanity and the integrity of reality. Humanity’s survival for the next 38,000 years has only been possible because of the rise of the Emperor and the development of the Imperium of Man, which stands as an oppressive bulwark against temptation and danger. Innovation is criminal, dystopian oppression is the standard, and human lives are infinitely expendable. This is the default setting for the Good Guys in this game and it gets darker from there. As they say in the tag line, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”

This adventure focuses on a group of Inquisition investigators dispatched to a warship, believed lost for 700 years, that has recently returned from the Warp and dispatched a distress signal. (In 40K, faster-than-light travel is possible by taking a shortcut through the Warp, which is where Chaos daemons come from. It’s only “safe” because they have psychic navigators and cover the entire hull of the ship with anti-daemon wards. In this case, they didn’t come out of the Warp on schedule) Our team was a blend of two Inquisitor retinues: the half I commanded had worked together previously (according to our character questionnaires) and consisted of a firebrand Imperial preacher (who are armed and fanatical in this setting, not your daddy’s pacifist cleric), a mind-wiped assassin they trained and use like the Winter Soldier, a sanctioned psyker who has been trained to use potent psychic powers and resist the deadly allure of the Warp, and a high-born noble Arbitrator from the Judge Dredd school of justice. The other team we met up with was a tech priest who had replaced most of her body with mechanical implements and machine interfaces and her bodyguard, a Sister of Battle (a warrior nun who wields a combo flamethrower/machine gun with Joan of Arc’s dedication to her faith and violence).

The setting is complicated, is the point. And half the players (the assassin, tech priest, and Sister of Battle) had no prior experience with it, so some of the beginning of the session was getting everyone up to speed on Imperial doctrine and setting assumptions. Once we got into the story, picking through bodies from either a mutiny or massacre, discovering captain’s logs and personal journals to slowly unfold the daemonic threat on board and the story of how this ship came to house a terrible evil. It’s a well-paced sci-fi horror that gives you plenty of chances to embrace the darkness or fight back, existential threats mixed with traditional combat throughout. A couple of solid set piece encounters prime the adventure for some big options in terms of the showdown and a big finale that brings it all together.

If I sound a little cagier about how it all comes together more than usual, the reason is twofold: 1) the surprises in the adventure were largely player generated, due to the questionnaire character generation of Dread, and 2) I have the adventure up for download over on the Adventure page, under The Matt Harrop collection. If you’re a 40K fan or a Dread devotee, it’s worth running for 5 or 6 friends or begging your local GM to run it for you. Some of the big reveals would rightly be considered spoilers if you intend to experience it yourself.

That having been said, I like how the adventure combines visceral horror and the mounting suspense of exploring a place where terrible things have occurred and will likely occur again. The twisted nature of the Warp is fertile ground for the right GM to whisper sweet, terrible nothings into the ears of the weak-willed in the party. Our earliest (and only) death was our Imperial preacher charging a Silent Hill-style body horror (multiple torsos fused into one creature, walking on its many hands and struggling in a fleshy sac that healed around its talons piercing it to walk on the ground) and disappeared around a corner before we could advise him that trying to solo a Chaos abomination was a poor choice. We met him again, severed and fused into the beast and functioning like a scorpion’s tail, of sorts, still semi conscious of his former party. It was a great reveal and to my knowledge not an element of the adventure but just a spur-of-the-moment improv by our GM. Our assassin delivered the Emperor’s Blessing via mono molecular blade to the heart and he died with praise for the Emperor on his lips, redeemed from his folly in death.

The high stakes nature of the adventure and the everything-cranked-to-11 style of the setting makes for an intense game. Care should be taken that it doesn’t tip over into parody or excess, but rides the line between the important nature of the mission at hand and the themes of sacrifice and barbarism at the heart of Warhammer 40,000. I feel like it’s such an oppressive mood to run a campaign in, but a great place to visit for a couple hours, wrestle with literal and personal demons, and walk away at the end feeling like you accomplished something. Or failed and doomed a sector to daemonic outbreak, but that’s really up to you.

Tomorrow features the last session review of the con, the biggest discovery of the con for me in Protocol, a diceless, GM-less improv system that got great depth of situation and character right at the twilight of the convention.