A group of us has launched into a mini-campaign of Vincent Baker’s first game–you know, the one where the characters do pathetic acts of cruelty in order to amass evil points that in turn allow them to do even more gross, senseless acts of infamy. If you want a quick overview of the game’s premise, there’s a Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kill_puppies_for_satan) and there’s a review by Ron Edwards (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/reviews/30/).
kpfs veers wildly and unexpectedly into different terrains and tones: One second you have crass adolescent humor, the next moment it can turn serious and unsettling, and then you might be back on the humor track, except this time the jokes may be darker and more disturbing. Players take on characters who are loathsome and pathetic, and it thus pushes them into a disconnect–a sense that your character is constantly saying and doing things that you personally find repulsive, despicable, or lame. I’m also starting to pick up on another curious undertone: The rulebook pushes the GM to create some truly malevolent figures, and as these npcs appear, there’s going to be a conflict between the pathetic acts of the player characters and the far more dangerous plans of the villains who may be killing people instead of puppies. I’m not sure who we will be cheering on (or booing) when the fur really starts to fly. The game was satisfying to run, and I’ll try to give you a sense of how I’ve gone about organizing the play and how I’ve approached the rules. I promise to keep the discussion PG-13.
For the purposes of our game, I set up a Google Jamboard. This gives us a shared, living document to which we add pages as the need or the mood arises. Before play, I had one page providing instructions for character creation, and then each player added their own character pages where they provided stats, pictures, and background information. One crucial part of character creation is rolling to see how many people hate your character: The players did that, and their character pages provide information about those relationships–who the haters are and the source of their vitriol. Following Baker’s recommendation, I’ll be working to get those angry npcs into play.
I have another page on our Jamboard with some images of Pyrehole, the fictitious California town where my game is set. That page also has some atmospheric lyrics from Tom Waits, and it has space to take on other tidbits for inspiration. At the end of our last session, I created a page where I put up a bunch of sticky notes reminding us of some of the plans in the works, which will help me to frame scenes in upcoming sessions.
I’m pleased with how the Jamboard is working: It’s an easy-to-use, flexible platform, and everyone can add text and images to it and move things around on the fly. I may even use it to provide crude maps during game sessions should the need arise.
Before our opening session, I set up a few interesting locations and inhabitants for Pyrehole. The rulebook gives you guidelines for creating aliens, sorcerers, ghouls, vigilantes, religious fanatics, and other curious npcs. I gave some thought to a few of those types, and I’m using some large 5×7 index cards to make notes. I went pretty light on the details initially since I didn’t know where the play would take us, but it will be easy to add more cards when I need to prepare more details for characters, locations, or factions.
I’d initially thought about asking the players to give their characters kickers (a la Sorcerer) in order to set things into motion, but that didn’t seem in keeping with such pathetic and aimless souls as the characters are. Instead, I worked with what the players gave me on their character pages and gave them opening situations that I knew would entice their characters.
Character #1: Bucky Honka’s Indiscretion
Bucky Honka is a wannabe EMT who currently lives in a ‘74 Chevy van. He drives around town doing senseless acts like stealing wheel chocks (see image) from garages. Why? Because that’s the type of stupid thing a kpfs character does. Bucky also depends upon his van to haul stuff around town, which can put some cash in his pocket. During one of his prank runs, Bucky gets a call from a sketchy dispatcher telling him he can earn some money picking up a box at a warehouse across from a retirement community. The dispatcher insists that he needs to be discrete if he takes the job (and she’s sure to explain what the word discrete means). Bucky drops his load of wheel chocks in a dumpster and heads over to the warehouse. After picking up the large box, he decides to take a look at what he’s carrying, trying to be “discrete” as he pries the box open.
Time for mechanics! We are using Baker’s new-and-improved conflict resolution system as spelled out in the annotated version of kpfs.
What this means is that all rolls are opposed: In other words, the player chooses one of his character’s relevant statistics and adds that value to a number rolled on a d6, trying to get a total of 7 or more. In turn, the GM rolls for any opposing npc’s and/or for the Dangerousness involved. Bucky rolled terribly (failing to make the 7 mark), and I meanwhile rolled well for the Danger. Obviously, Bucky gets to see what’s in the box (which happens to be a fresh corpse), but, as a result of failing his stealth roll (using his statistic for “f—–d up”), he’s doing a terrible job of it and leaving clear signs of his tampering on the box. Also since my Danger roll is over the 7 threshold, there’s also going to be some added price to pay for Bucky.
One tricky element here is that the full consequences of Bucky’s failed roll was delayed: At the time he makes the rolls, he succeeds at opening the box (even a loser can open a cardboard box), and he also gets the information he is after! But the recipient of his cargo is going to notice the package has been tampered with, and it’s going to put Bucky in a terrible spot.
So, after closing up the box the best he can, Bucky makes his way to the destination and finds out that there’s another driver who has also been hauling a corpse to the ranch of a man named August Zinbane. Zinbane is a scary man–he’s collecting corpses and he keeps a supernaturally smart sidewinder rattlesnake as a pet. I came down hard on Bucky (as a result of his failed “f——-d up” roll and my successful Danger roll). Zinbane delivers Bucky a hard deal: He’s requiring Bucky to find and deliver him another corpse within a week . . . or else. Bucky probably doesn't want to know what "or else" means.
The scene with Zinbane was oddly unsettling and comic, and it led to a line from Bucky that brought the house down: “Mr. Zimbane, I’m sorry . . . I deeply apologize for the fact that you noticed I opened up your box.” Bucky’s player spoke that pseudo-apology with a stunning delivery–like something out of a warped Coen brothers film.
A sharp aspect of this resolution system is the Danger roll. Not only does it give something for the characters to roll against when there is no definable npc in a situation, but it forces the GM specifically to consider the stakes and possible outcomes involved in a conflict prior to the roll. In the case of poor Bucky, I didn’t reveal the Danger (because he hadn’t yet met Zinbane), but the system forced me as a GM to consider how the hammer would drop on Bucky.
Character #2: Ricky’s Date with "The Lich King"
The other player has a character named Ricky who is a heavy metal music wannabe, but who ekes out a living recording other wannabe musicians in his basement sound studio (which is also his apartment). He gets a call from the proprietor of a local music venue (a place called The Werehaus) about a black metal artist named Hringal “The Lich King” Lichkin and his band Odin’s Axis. Lichkin is from South Florida, but has left under sketchy circumstances, and he is hoping to establish himself in California. Ricky is asked if he can lend a hand hauling gear and setting up for the show. Ricky only has a junky scooter for transportation, but he knows Bucky, so he gives him a call, asking if his van is available–so voila, the two player characters decide to combine forces at a future date.
Ricky, who has only heard about “The Lich King,” starts making plans to impress: He hops on his scooter and makes his way to a local church. He wants to set up some gratuitous act of vandalism that might prove appealing to a black metal artist. He’s going to try to seem inconspicuous, scope the place out, and talk to a priest or pastor on the premises.
The dice come out again, this time for two rolls. First I have Ricky roll with his “f——d up” against Danger to see how effective he is at being inconspicuous while he is casing the church. And I also have him do a second roll for how successful his talk to the priest goes. For that second situation, which involves a social situation, instead of adding the d6 roll to the standard 4 Dangerousness number, the GM adds the D6 roll to the character’s “How Many People Hate Me” stat. Ricky ends up with great success. In both cases, he goes above the threshold target of 7, and my rolls, which would trigger some nastiness, end up being quite weak. So Ricky gets the full layout of the church, takes note of vandalism supplies that are on site (tempera paint from the Sunday school classrooms, gasoline from the maintenance shed, etc.) and he has a conversation with the priest who gives him the church schedule and invites him to visit again. There are some delayed consequences involved in this situation–this time beneficial ones–as Ricky will have some strategic advantages in pulling off his profane prank. Baker’s revised system allows for rolling over a bonus on a success.
I had not worked up the church in advance of our session, as I had no idea Ricky would go that direction. (I should have known better.) But I didn’t completely dream the church up. Instead, I recalled a specific actual church that I am familiar with, and when describing the layout and on-site resources, I based them on my best memory. This is a handy technique for coming up with buildings and layouts on the fly. Need a school? Just recall a school you attended, and you’ve got a ready-made locale, complete with architectural details, layout, and atmosphere. Need an emergency medical clinic? Just do your best to recollect the most recent visit you have made and fill in details as needed. The technique allows you quickly to provide material at the table, but it also keeps that material grounded and constrained, as it is based on a remembered reality.
At the end of the session, Bucky has the creepy August Zinbane to deal with, and Ricky is making plans for a black metal musician (who is not necessarily the kind of guy you want to hang out with). Both players were thinking for our next session it would be worthwhile to collect some evil points. Smart. Doing so allows you to access special powers and abilities. Bucky was inspired with the idea of buying a bunch of cat food and using it to attract feral cats at an abandoned building, thus establishing a cute kitten factory (and an evil point bonanza). Yuck.
The game is a unique experience. It has elements of supernatural horror (think The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Twin Peaks), except the characters in kpfs are by definition horrible, loathsome, woeful losers. This takes the game into very different direction than those types of hit shows. Mulder, Scully, Buffy, and Agent Cooper all have their stylish quirkiness, nerdy coolness, athletic physiques, and good looks to draw upon.
What do Bucky and Ricky have? Senseless acts of vandalism, animal abuse, a stash of stolen wheel chocks . . . and the desperate hope that they can earn some evil points to do stuff like turning their snot on fire.
The game’s npcs gives you a parade of dastardly villains who have the power and the means to do truly EVIL things–things like killing people, possessing souls, and brainwashing the innocent. Bucky and Ricky are clearly going to be in over their heads. One of their few redeeming features–at least for now–is that they are too impotent, clueless, and feeble-minded to be capable of real EVIL. So we will be revolted and disgusted as they hatch their petty acts of mayhem and cruelty which they turn to in a pathetic attempt to deal with the tidal wave of woe heading their way.