By Anna Urbanek
Art deals! Artifacts! Lore drops! Getting through the PAs and PR specialists, trying to get a private meeting with Henequen – an art-dealing dragon who possesses more information about Tomorrow’s sister.
Welcome to the first scenario in my Project Aphelion’s Shadowrun-esque campaign, where I playtest PA’s solo play system and an exorbitant amount of fun while doing it. If you’ve missed the previous posts, here they are:
During the campaign we’ve played, Tomorrow dug long, hard, and deep into her sister’s disappearance. One night, after an especially deep dive into Chloe’s (probably) friend, Fayette, Tomorrow received a message on her commlink that led to an incredible meeting that I conveniently have archived for myself, so it’s not gone with our Discord server. You’re getting a free short story then, courtesy of Jakub, my amazing GM in that Shadowrun campaign.
July 27, Meeting with Henequen
At night, I got a message from an encrypted LTG: I was made aware of your inquiries into certain matters pertaining to a relative of a person formerly known as Diana. Most kindly I would beckon for you to pursue other hobbies, if that’s not too much trouble. It would be very much conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Should you choose to disregard my care for your good intentions and well-being, who am I to judge? Please do be more cautious. In fact, why not go see the Blucifer at sunset? I assure you it’s the most rewarding of views.
At sunset, as I obviously went to see the Blucifer. Of course – what else could have happened? – there was a dragon waiting for me.
(Switching to GM’s narration, don’t mind me. This is how the meeting worked out in our SR campaign, to the word.)
The moment you open your astral senses you see a feathered serpentine creature made of rainbow light twisting and dancing around the statue’s legs and mane. It looks right at you with eyes made up of emerald glow and says: ‘Nice evening, isn’t it?’
‘Sure is. I’m personally a fan of more windy conditions for flying but one can’t not enjoy this beautiful sunset,’ she responds in astral, looking at the feathered serpent with too much awe to consider the amount of dread she maybe should be feeling. ‘Nice to meet you. I’m Sarah.’
‘I am known as Henequen.’ says the dragon. ‘At least as of late. You chose the path of danger then, Sarah?’
‘I chose the path of finding my sister. Diana’s daughter is the only link I have,’ she answers plainly. ‘Danger is… irrelevant but not ignored.’
‘Only a fool ignores danger, but a brave man laughs in its face.’ said the dragon with approval.
Tomorrow grins at that, looking at the obviously dangerous serpent. ‘I’d never. Thank you for inviting me here, Henequen. How can I help?’
‘That was my line.’
‘Apologies.’ Tomorrow tries to get rid of the stupid grin but can’t. ‘How can we help each other then? You know exactly what’s my goal in all of this. I take it, I’m on the right course to find my sister – her case and Fayette’s are connected?’
‘I may tell you a story, if you have five minutes to spare?’
‘I have a lifetime to spare if it brings me any closer to Chloe.’
‘There was once a man, who had great ambitions, and loving ones around. He worked for the greater good of his people, among a nation emerging from the dust of old, or so he thought. There were those close to him and his work, whose true intentions were obscured in the dark, as it always must be in stories like this. They led the man astray, into the tangle of bloodied vines. He saw that it is his duty to awaken the old gods of his people, or so he thought.’
‘So he decided to invoke the old rites of blood magic and sacrifice his wife and daughter?’ Though it’s posed as a question, there’s very little doubt in the voiced thoughts. There’s a lot of interest and very little judgement. ‘A tragic story’.
‘I see you heard it before. I guess I’ll go bother someone else then. I wonder if there’s someone named Scrooge in this village…’
‘I’ve never heard it told that well. Please, continue, o Great Ghost of Quecholli Past, Present, and Yet to Come. I’ll hold my tongue.’ She feels sincere.
The dragon’s serpentine, hypnotic motions didn’t change, but suddenly the astral space around it rippled, and waved, each wave carrying with it a feeling of joy… You’d almost swear the dragon’s laughing.
Tomorrow grins but keeps quiet.
‘Very well then. The misguided man cut out his beloved’s heart and raised it high for the Sun to see. The Sun repelled in disgust, but darkness clouded the man’s eyes and he could see naught but what the dark wanted him to see. The man drank his beloved’s blood thinking this sacrifice was what needed to be done, and the dark laughed at his fate. He set out to kill the fruit of all that was good and holy in his life as well, but brave warriors stood up for the little girl, at the behest of her aunt. They foiled his plans time and time again, hiding the girl in different places each time. But the man always found her, following the voice of his heart. The heart that cried to abandon the wicked hunt, yet all he heard was the call of blood. Eventually the warriors faced their nemesis, and defeated him. The man fell and only then he saw the truth of what he did – and it broke his mind.’
Tomorrow nods, all cheeriness gone. She looks at the dragon quietly, letting the sadness show in her aura.
‘The child’s aunt placed her in a school within this town, in the land where the ones who paid the broken man ruled – knowing that he can never show his face there, else he would be killed by those he failed. She did not know one thing, and that spelled her doom. She did not know that the dark that whispered into the broken man’s ear dwells beneath the teocalli, and that not even a tiny ant can escape the attention of those oh so mighty who look down on the world from it. Mighty as they are, they too cannot tell their own thoughts from dark’s whispers. And so they used the earthly influence that they hold to capture the broken man’s child, and your sister as well.’
She waits for the dragon to continue, not wanting to interrupt the story.
‘Well, I didn’t expect a standing ovation, but give me something, come on. I’m doing my best here.’
‘I can’t really start clapping here in the middle of a sidewalk… Wait.’ Tomorrow thinks back to all the rock concerts she’s ever been to, focusing on the feeling of joy and the cheering, and the applause, sending it wrapped in a package through astral. ‘Thank you. The story was beautiful and deeply moving, I wouldn’t change a word. The antihero is properly tragic, the metaplot dark and twisted, and there’s an imagination-capturing promise of a sequel. Hopefully with a happier ending.’ She smiles, then raises her eyes, looking into the emerald glow of the dragon’s eyes. ‘Why are they holding Fayette and Chloe? It’s been almost two years.’
‘Who said they’re being held there still? Your sister is where the sun sets over a burning mountain looking over the sea.’ said the dragon in a mysterious voice. ‘And rich sararimen go warm their fat asses on the beach.’ he added.
‘Oh?’ Tomorrow thinks for a second. ‘Shoalwater?’
‘Hawaii.’ replied the dragon in a paternal tone. ‘Chloe’s in Honolulu.’
‘Damn, Shoalwater’s closer. What is she doing in Honolulu?’
Sarah chuckles. ‘Good for her, then, I guess.’ There’s a noticeable if not fully processed feeling of relief in her aura – a battle of ‘I’m so happy she’s alive’ and ‘I never had any doubts she’s alive’.
‘At least now you’ll stop stomping about and raising the watchfulness of those whom I’d wish to lull into false security. I figured it’s best to just tell you – the other option was eating you, and I dislike the taste of poultry.’
‘Hey, I clearly stomped about just the right amount. But seriously – thank you, Henequen. For not eating me too, but to a lesser extent. I’m sure it would be a once in a lifetime experience.’
‘For you, maybe.’
‘Well, obviously only for me.’ She laughs. ‘There’s a lot of us ravens and not many of us have the privilege of getting munched on by beautiful dragons. Can I talk to my sister, please?’
‘Feel free. I’m sure she could use your help, anyway.’
‘She’ll obviously get all I have to offer.’ Tomorrow waits for a couple of seconds. ‘Soooo… You got her number or something?’
‘Sorry, no hands.’
‘That’s okay, I’m sure you remember. It’s not like you want me to stomp about and call Honolulu’s information center.’ She grins at the dragon, pretty sure she’s charming enough to not be treated as poultry. Or rather, if she was meant to be eaten, she would be.
‘I told you all that I will. Now, good luck finding your sister. Goodbye.’ said the dragon and flew away not waiting for a response.
‘Thank you.’ The response still comes as distance means nothing. Tomorrow looks after the flying dragon, trying very hard to get rid of the stupid grin on her face. She looks down at her commlink, all grey and stupid in her hand, in case somebody observes her on material plane, and just turns on her heel, getting back to the material plane, and getting out from the airport.
Scenario 1: Into the Dragon’s Cave
Project Aphelion makes it really easy to generate scenarios and game sessions, whether for solo play or for the whole GM-led party. Just like with the campaign generation, it’s a procedural generator that embraces the core value of Aphelion: player agency. While the game can be run in the classic ‘GM is god, players are there for the ride’ style, it’s not what it’s built for. That’s why it’s up to the players to come up with their objectives, plans, and strategies to ensure the desired outcomes.
You’re not dropped in front of the dungeon to fight monsters – you choose to visit the dungeon, and if you prefer to play a gig there and sell tickets to the goblins instead of killing them for loot, this is 100% your prerogative – just figure out a way to make it work.
Hence, the scenario generation I’m going through is not a matter of preparing encounters for Tomorrow – it’s a matter of choosing the goals, doing legwork, learning about the opposition, and preparing for the finale on my terms – if I can pull it all off. Yes, there will be twists and turns, and the Unexpected will probably happen – but this is not something I can control, so I will not be planning it. The game has tools to make it happen doing the playthrough.
Step 1: Scenario Type
Project Aphelion comes with a list of convenient scenario types that can be used as a framework for any scenario we want to play. It gives a structure to the whole thing, cutting down on the prep time, and making the game engaging. This particular Scenario is a Chase: Tomorrow is the Offence trying to reach the finish line – get to the final conversation with the manager and get the meeting with Henequen booked. The Crew in the gallery is going to be the Defence, doing their damndest to make it impossible. This type of Scenario means Tomorrow can start gathering marks towards her Main Finale Task right from the start, without jumping through the hoops of sneaking into the building, conning the receptionist, and pretending to be somebody’s long-lost aunt. That also means the Defence starts with some marks (equal to Threat Rating) already on their side – they come pre-equipped with ‘no, you can’t talk to the boss, you rando from the street’ attitude.
Step 2: Payout
The next step of the scenario generation is picking the goal – what I want to achieve by succeeding in this scenario. As Henequen is several (think: lots) leagues above Tomorrow (a billionaire dragon vs. one young magician), the objective of this scenario is not ‘squeeze Henequen for intel’ but ‘secure a meeting with the dragon and make him like Tomorrow a bit more’. As you may or may not remember, Tomorrow and Henequen are at a perfectly neutral Familiarity 5 – they know each other but there are no feelings in either direction. I figured that it would be prudent to increase the Familiarity a bit more and make the actual task of getting the information a bit easier. Tomorrow is not a social person and while she can lie her ass off, a more subtle and honest approach is necessary – sadly, not Tomorrow’s forte.
However, I already know that Henequen is an art dealer, and for particularly good deals he’s willing to meet with the prospective seller. Fortunately, Tomorrow already has something she can potentially sell – in one of the adventures, the group has found a stone carved cone vibrating with powerful ritual magic, and everything points towards this cone being used by Daniel Howling Coyote when he was learning the Great Ghost Dance. The stone is old but carving on the cone is about 40 years old and shows a serpent-like humanoid. (If you know your Earthdawn/Shadowrun: you know it’s Thais, I know it’s Thais, Henequen will probably also know it’s Thais – Tomorrow has an absolute zero chance of knowing that.)
Back to the mechanics. Payout is a number that influences the rest of the process, just like Campaign Rating influenced the campaign generation. It’s my first-ever solo scenario and I don’t entirely know what to expect and how it will go, so I’ll stick to Payout 4 for the time being – giving the Scenario roughly 4 dice against Tomorrow. She comes into it with a dice pool of 3-5, depending on the attribute used, so it seems fair for a balanced test run.
Now, every point of Payout is equivalent to 5,000 credits/nuyen of value but as Tomorrow doesn’t care about cashing in on her art price as much as she cares about the good rep with the dragon, I’m not going for cash only.
My 4 points of Payout will actually be:
- 1 Payout worth of Cred
- 3 Payouts worth of Influence with Henequen’s Faction
If I succeed at the Scenario, as it is going to benefit Henequen’s Faction, I will also automatically raise the Familiarity by 1.
Step 3: Threat Rating
Just because I want the Scenario to be nice, relatively easy and balanced, doesn’t mean it will be. It might just happen that the dragon Tomorrow has met earlier was just pretending to be Henequen and she is now trying to book a meeting through brazen cold-calling. Or that it’s a trap. Or, on the other side, that she’s overpreparing (as she usually is), and all she needed to do was a phone call. This part of the mechanic is called Threat Rating.
This is somewhat of a game that reflects the effectiveness of legwork – while Tomorrow is out there collecting information on the job at hand, the world is not standing still. With every data search she runs, with every person she asks, which every spell she casts, there is a chance that somebody hears about it and it is going to make her task harder.
Let’s start the legwork then, shall we?
Legwork is an investigation into the Scenario. Any skill that reasonably fits the task can be used: Diplomacy, IT, Investigation, Science, Perception – as long as it’s logically viable, it works. It is a Main Task with Challenge Rating equal to the Payout – that means, it’s a task in which Tomorrow needs to gather 4 (Payout) marks. Whether she does it over one interval (in one roll) or it takes her more time, she’ll still achieve the goal – the question is how long does it take her and how many times the Scenario will be rolling against her.
Looking at Tomorrow’s stats, the best choices for Legwork would be: Sorcery (what’s a bit of spellwork between friends), Stealth (one of her favorite things to do anyway), Conjuring (get a spirit to collect info for her), Investigation (a general intel-gathering), or Con (using subterfuge to insinuate herself into a good position).
As a good magician, Tomorrow is going to use her magic skills – with her one spell, she’ll Shapechange into a raven and go to snoop around Henequen’s art gallery to learn about the process and gather some data on people working there.
Rolling 5 dice (Logic 5) against the difficulty of 3 (default 6 – 3 ranks of Sorcery skill), she gets:
3, 5, 6, 6, and 10 – 5 marks total! In just one roll and one day (the standard interval on the Strategy Layer) she has learnt enough information to start the Scenario – and even exceeded her basic needs, which will hopefully make the job a bit easier.
Meanwhile, as she was snooping around the Scenario, the Scenario was snooping around her, rolling 4 dice (Payout) against the standard difficulty of 6 (the difficulty for the scenario is dependent on the number of players – in solo play it’s just 6, and it gets lower the more people are engaged in the Legwork.)
The Scenario has rolled 1, 2, 3, and 9 – just 1 mark against Tomorrow. Looked like she was lucky and rather convincing as a raven!
Now, the Threat Rating equals the combined rating of all non-player crews (in this case, Henequen’s art purveyor Crew R2) plus half the marks (rounded up, as always) scored by the Scenario = 3. I get to reduce it by half my net marks (rounded up), bringing it down to 2.
Step 4: Scenario Rating
Payout plus Threat Rating together make the final challenge of the Scenario, called Scenario Rating. In this case, it’s 6 – the job would be easier if there wasn’t a specialized crew of art buyers in the gallery – but Tomorrow needs to go through them! Scenario Rating is the Challenge Rating for Main Tasks in the Scenario – the number of marks she’ll need to gather to succeed at her Scene objectives. It also determines the power level of the opposition and the number of Build Points for the Scenario: 6.
Step 5: Build Points
With 6 Build Points, I can start building the Scenario. I can spend the points to make some challenges harder (or get extra points for making certain things easier), I can add Modules, Scenes, Actors, make them higher tier, and generally adjust the Scenario to my needs.
Step 6: Modules
I have already decided that this Scenario is going to take place inside an art gallery, now I need to build it. The Scenario gets free Modules equal to Payout and the same number of Passages to connect them – that means I get to make a small ‘mini dungeon’ for free, then embellish it with cool stuff.
Modules are physical spaces where the Scenario takes place: rooms, corridors, checkpoints, supply closets, etc.
It all starts with a Gateway (1) – a door, basically – leading to a Service Space / Gallery Floor (2). To the side, there’s Storage Module (3) for safeguarding precious art pieces and a Central Module / Office (4). By default, all Modules are restricted spaces – ie. they need some kind of credentials (a keycode, a card, or just the right to be there) bto access. As I’m building an art gallery, I’m ‘downgrading’ the first two Modules to public spaces – everybody can just walk in and see the art. This nets me 2 Build Points to spend elsewhere (giving me a total of 8).
I’ll spend 2 points to put two extra Modules in place: one Hardpoint (a maglock) on the Storage Room door (5) and a second Hardpoint (invitation-only) before the Office (6). I could get some extra points for placing a Treasury in the Storage Module but as Tomorrow has zero interest in robbing the place or even swiping a pamphlet, that would be a cheeky move that I’m just not gonna do.
The free Passages (to simulate the paths and the time needed to go from one room to another) are: 1->2, 2->3, 2->4, 3->4.
Step 7: Scenes
In this step, I’m setting up the default Scenes for the Modules. Of course, I don’t know how the Scenario plays out, but after the legwork and applying logic to the task, I can imagine what will be going on in the area. The Scenario gets a number of free Scenes equal to the Payout, and I can buy/sell them for Build Points.
Module 1: there’s little point placing anything at the Gateway – it’s a public space, I can just walk in. However, in case something goes terribly wrong, I’ll place a Reinforcements delayed scene here – if there are shots fired, suspicions raised, or the general drek hits the fan, the security patrol will arrive in (10+Scenario Rating) minutes. Better not tip off any silent alarms in the middle of a negotiation!
Module 2: this is where the gallery’s employees greet the guests. Tomorrow can reasonably expect that if she wanders in, she’ll be given some time to walk around and will then be approached by an employee. This is a social offence scene in which Tomorrow will try to convince them that she’s basically a big deal and has a reason to meet with their boss, while the employees will try to dissuade her.
Module 3: a passive scene here – some employees taking care of the stock and quite probably, drinking coffee.
Module 4: the finale – the final conversation in the Scenario, where Tomorrow asks the manager for meeting with Henequen and discussing the details of the sale – maybe even gets a deposit (that 1 Payout of cred!).
As I’m making this a Chase, I need to add a Scene in which the Defence wins – which will be a Getaway scene for the Tomorrow – maybe she has angered the crew enough to chase her out, maybe she’s being escorted out by the security, maybe it was all Aztechnology’s trap and she needs to escape before she gets kidnapped – who knows what will happen. At this point, I’m just paying 1 Build Point to place the Scene there, leaving me with 5.
Step 8: Actors
The gallery’s not empty. There’s a Crew R2 of Henequen’s art purveyors that will be main opposition for Tomorrow in this Scenario, there should be some on-site security, and extras milling about: other customers or support/cleaning staff.
There are no free Actors, so I need to pay for them with Build Points.
Three Actors in the R2 Crew (3 BP): Two on the gallery floor and one in the office. It would make sense for the two on the floor to be Social/Creative types and the manager of the gallery a Creative/Investigative type. As they’re the main opposition, it will be good to flesh them out a bit more, using Project Aphelion’s Non-Essential Actors rules.
Actor 1: Floor Clerk. R2, Social/Creative, the tank – they will attempt to draw attention to themselves, greeting clients, and making it as hard as possible to reach the main goal. I don’t want to predetermine their approach yet, as it will be more fun to learn that later, I’ll skip this for now. A random person generator tells me this Actor’s name is John Gonzales, a tall, packed mid-30s guy.
Actor 2: Floor Clerk. R2, Social/Creative, the support – they will do their best to generate Clout for others, boost their Pools and prevent them from becoming incapacitated. And the person behind the stats is Willian Cisneros, a lanky guy in early 20s.
Actor 3: The Manager. R3 (I’m spending 1 BP to make them a higher tier), Creative/Investigative, the marker – their focus is to score marks against Tomorrow, to make it impossible to reach the goal or eliminate other Actors. And the person is Cynthia Richardson, a 60-year-old, 5-feet-tall, obese woman who runs this whole place.
With my last Build Point, I’m placing a security guard there, an Investigation/Warfare Actor under the name of Thomas Houston. As the Scenario Rating is between 6 and 10, he comes at R3 – so, he’ll have 3 dice and ‘skill 3’ at all tasks connected with investigation and half that (rounded up) for warfare.
I want to add 10 Extras (random people without stats and effects other than being a witness: clients + gallery staff) but I need 1 Build Point for that – I’ll delay the Reinforcements’ arrival by 1 minute (so it will arrive 15 minutes after the alarm rings, not 14, netting Tomorrow extra time for escape, if needed!) and get that 1 Point there.
Step 9: All done!
With that, I’m ready to start the Scenario! The rules allow me, of course, to do extra research into any facet of the Scenario, down to learning Cynthia’s husband’s brother’s shoe size, but I’m keeping this one plain and easy. The dice are already against me, so I’ll focus the efforts on stacking the deck in my favor.
Time estimate: This is the first time I was fully building a scenario, and the whole process took about half an hour. That is, it took several hours of writing it all down for the purposes of taking you through the process, but the generation itself is not complicated once you get used to it. Aphelion comes preloaded with types of scenarios, modules, scenes, actors, behaviors, SOPs, and main drives, so it’s a mix-and-match process. If you prefer the scenario to be a secret (I don’t, because my PCs are always coming into the game after proper legwork), there are rules to generate the modules, scenes, and actors as you go through the Scenario – so nothing stops you from going on the ‘let’s see what’s behind the corner’ type of dungeon-delving.
The next step
I’m finally gonna get to play, aight? Aight! Sooo loking forward to it!
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