The big thing I took away from my second running of Neutral Grounds was this: Don’t run a game with more than five players.
But let’s rewind first.
Neutral Grounds is a one-shot scenario that’s one part murder mystery, two parts kidnapped best friend/community pillar, three parts Oh God What Do We Do Now. Having run it twice, it generally focuses on a non-player character called Diane Bassett – a kitchen witch operating a magical hipster coffee house in Baltimore called Neutral Grounds. She gets kidnapped and two of her baristas get murdered. You’ve got up to seven player characters to remedy the situation: a heavy metal werewolf (Sean), a retired psychic detective (Martin), a lawbreaking mage (Maria), a newbie wizard (Zack), a fake psychic (Astra), a short changeling (Dania), and a despair-eating vampire-in-progress (Nate).
A few things stayed similar in both sessions. Sean had the hots for Diane – the first time around, he was flat-out stalking her. Martin and Sean were curmudgeonly buddies – the first session had Sean’s day job as a bounty hunter and they worked together in the past, while the second had Martin being a complete nihilist who regarded the thuggish Sean as no different from any cop.
What was drastically different was just about everything else. There are two suggested villains for the scenario, Eric McCulloch (Diane’s ex) and Damocles Ravenborn (vampiric Matrix fanboy). Eric was the villain in the first one and the players really made an objective bastard out of him. He broke the minds of about two-dozen people and went stark raving mad from over-exposure to the supernatural. In the second, he was nothing more than a picture perfect background detail – one of the players outright described him as being the nicest, blandest, most eerily perfect guy ever. Damocles ended up being the villain the second time around – he got a throwaway mention for the first session, but he ended up being a creepy Sean-stalking weirdo for the second. Eric relied on minions but Damocles was a one-man wrecking crew that took most of the characters to put down.
And he was put down. But we’ll get to that later.
Also different: Maria. In the first session she was a refugee-turned-police cadet, straight-laced and by-the-book with a side of Oh God I’m Paranoid. In the second, she was That Girl – unfocused, borderline disruptive, but funny as hell so we all just rolled with it. By the end of it, Martin had deliberately blown out one of her eardrums and fried off an eyebrow with a close proximity gunshot just to get her out of the way.
The other four characters were only played in the second session. Astra didn’t get enough play because I had so many people to juggle, but when she did it was great – she awakened latent magical powers and became the group’s healbot. Nate took himself out of play for most of the final battle, only to run in, steal Damocles’ sword, and literally hop, skip, and run away. Zack was good, but definitely got drowned out by Maria, and his player wasn’t clear on how effective his powers could be in an apartment complex (my bad, not the player’s). He still set up Nate’s crowning moment of funny, and served as the resident Sane Man for much of the scenario.
Dania didn’t get to do much, but when she did it was glorious.
Her player was the one behind Chris Stein in Faerie’s Bargain. She basically spent most of both sessions sidelined and supporting others, until the crew was going up against Damocles on the tenth floor of a sketchy rust belt apartment building. Martin was emptying his gun into Damocles to little effect. Sean had taken him head-on without much success. Zack briefly whacked him and tried to get the sword to no avail. Damocles was in full giant man-bat form, slowly trundling towards Martin and a wounded Maria, when Dania finally said Screw It and made the Choice.
In the Dresden Files, changelings like Chris and Dania usually have one human parent and one faerie parent. Sooner or later they have to choose which side they embrace – do they become pure mortals or do they become pure faeries?
Dania became a pure faerie, shedding her humanity like so much dead weight. She strolled out into the hallway and took off running at Damocles. Martin was stunned to inaction by the sheer glory of her. Damocles went to smack her down like he did Sean and Zack. Dania got in close and went right for his stomach.
Her player rolled a critical success.
She wound up getting shoulder-deep in his guts and grabbed his spine. Guess what happened next.
Dania took her new trophy, ripped a hole in reality and disappeared through it. She shut the door behind her and everybody pretty much crapped a brick. Astra healed folks of their wounds. Cut to Nate, strolling down a sidewalk twirling his newfound katana. There are cop cars headed for the apartment. Everyone hears the sirens. End game.
All in all, Neutral Grounds was fun. I used the stats provided straight out of the book for everyone; it worked pretty well for the most part but I definitely had to coach people through adding things to their character sheets. I also had trouble working Astra into things, which was unusual for me. Astra has a lot of Fate points and that usually translates into being the most dangerous character, but she kinda just fell flat until she got healing powers. The Random Number God wasn’t helping much though, so the jury’s out on how much more I could’ve done to engage her.
My biggest takeaway was that I had a much easier time running it when it was just three players. It probably would’ve been perfect with five, which is only one more than what I’m used to. Seven was just way too much. I’m also used to having relatively compliant players who don’t actively try to get themselves killed – Maria’s wasn’t bad but it was my first time handling anyone that off the wall in how they did things. I also feel like I could have done more to keep Dania and Nate’s players engaged, but I’m not sure how.