“I think a plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.”
-Parker, The Way of the Gun.
A Crazy Handful of Nothin’ is a single-session adventure outline for Other Worlds dealing specifically with the heist/crime thriller genre. The player characters are a bunch of professional crooks who have been hired to complete a specific task. Some key inspirations here are Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Drive, Heat, and The Way of the Gun. A little pinch of Breaking Bad might come in handy as well.
If you’re going to do all this in a single session you don’t have time to do a full worldbuilding sequence. Instead you can boil down the information you need to three specific issues:
1. Pick a City. It doesn’t have to be a real city, or even a city you’re very familiar with. Just pick somewhere atmospheric that you feel comfortable improvising around. If you want to be clever you can choose an alternative time period as well. Some good examples of appropriate cities include LA, Vice City, 1980s New York, Copenhagen, and the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis in 2032.
2. Create a Mr Big. As a group create your collective employer using the normal supporting character rules. The primary purpose of this is to add some colour to the first scene, but it might also prove useful later on as events begin to spiral out of control.
3. Create the Mission. Roll d10 on the following table to determine your assigned task, or invent one of your own.
- Rob a bank or jewellery shop
- Rob a sports car showroom
- Spring someone from jail
- Murder an informant who is under police protection
- Murder a rival crime lord
- Murder a whole list of civilian witnesses
- Retrieve a briefcase full of diamonds or money
- Retrieve a truck full of guns or drugs
- Retrieve a memory stick that contains vital information
- 10. Kidnap a rival’s wife as a hostage (50% chance she’s pregnant)
Again, you don’t have time to design a fully three-dimensional character with hopes and fears and an intricate little web of relationships. So we need to take a few shortcuts. Choose a power level of either 20 or 30. Give all the characters either Urban Middle Class or Urban Working Class as their cultural archetype, and either Assassin or Career Criminal as their professional archetype. It’s OK if one or two players want to vary this a little bit, for example by taking Outsider as their cultural archetype or Stuntman or even Cop as their professional archetype, but the scenario won’t really work if too many characters are atypical. You don’t have time to start creating new archetype templates in any event.
Characters in A Crazy Handful of Nothin’ do not have trademarks or preliminary supporting characters. They do have individuality but this should be invented during play rather than being designed in advance; flesh out your character’s backstory when he gets his moment in the spotlight goddammit!
A Crazy Handful of Nothin’ is specifically set up to create a blood opera-style game, meaning that the characters are heavily motivated to turn on each other before the end of the session. Each player should either roll d10 on the following table or invent his own sinister secret. These complications can be represented mechanically as abilities using the character’s individuality slots.
- The character is an undercover cop
- The character secretly works for a rival gang
- The character has a personal vendetta against his employer
- The character has a personal vendetta against another player character
- The character is desperate to find a way out of ‘the life’
- The character has a personal connection to the intended victim
- The character is a thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie
- The character is a stone cold psycho likely to go on a kill-crazy rampage
- The character owes a huge amount of money to some very serious people
- The character is paranoid about being set up (and maybe he’s right!)
In secret, the GM should also either roll d10 on the Plot Complications table below or invent some sinister twist of his own to mix things up a bit later.
- Mistaken identity – the characters have the wrong person or address
- The intended victim has been tipped off by persons unknown
- The intended victim is known to one of the player characters
- The location of the job is secretly under police surveillance
- The characters are secretly under police surveillance
- The whole job is a set-up
- Mr Big will attempt to have the characters killed after the mission
- A rival crew is attempting to do the same job
- The intended victims are heavily armed and extremely paranoid
- The site is full of innocent bystanders and potential witnesses
If you need to conjure up a random location, either as the site of the main job or just for some kind of side encounter, roll d10 on the following table.
- Seedy bar
- Pool hall
- Apartment building
- Truck stop
Structure of Play
The first scene should be the briefing. Have all the player characters be in the same room together while the Mr Big figure explains the mission to them. This could be the first time the player characters have ever met or just the latest in a long line of jobs they’ve performed together. Either way, they should spend a bit of time interacting with each other and asking Mr Big some questions to flesh out the details of the mission. It’s OK (necessary, even) for the players to do a bit of planning at this stage, but don’t spend too much time on it. Remember that this is supposed to be a one-shot, and no plan survives contact with the enemy anyway.
At this stage some of you might want to get all complicated and put in some Tarantino-esque flashbacks to show more of each character’s backstory, or some build-up scenes to show how the characters get whatever pieces of information or hardware they require. If done well these things can add a real sense of depth to the session, but bear in mind the time factor and make sure they don’t stop you from getting to the main action.
The main sequence of play should be the job itself. This is the heart of the adventure and there are so many variables that it’s impossible to offer much in the way of solid advice. Above all the GM is encouraged to keep the action moving as quickly as possible, introducing opposition and complications only as required to make the game more enjoyable. Remember that this is what these people do for a living, and they’re supposed to be pretty good at it. That said, if the players do manage to mess things up, don’t hesitate to throw some truly horrifying consequences their way (‘Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.’). Karma’s a bitch. As you move towards the end of the session you can also start to relax the normal rules on not putting player character’s lives at stake. In fact, once you get to the final few minutes, you should be actively trying to kill them off!
Players for their part should play up to the conventions of the genre at every opportunity, committing terrible acts of ultraviolence in a stylish way while also spitting out a constant barrage of witty pop culture references. Try to filter your character’s actions through the lens of your favourite movie director and throw yourself directly into the action. Show no mercy.
The second main sequence of play, if you get that far, is the aftermath. What will the characters do with their newly-captured hostage? How will they make it back to the safe house? How will they collect their winnings? How will they stop the police from catching up with them later? This is a good time for the GM to throw in any further complications, and also for the players to attempt any last minute betrayals or final quests for redemption. Look at the clock to see how much time you have left, and look back at the state of the characters to see how much more punishment they can take. You might even roll up a second mission if you’ve got the energy, or maybe save it for a sequel to play out another time!
This is the first in what may prove to be an irregular series of campaign snapshots for Other Worlds based mostly around recreating some of my favourite movies and TV shows.
When the Thunder Rolls is a dark tragedy about young corner kids trying to escape (or at least survive) the crushing poverty of the inner city and the brutal, casual violence of the drugs world. The clear inspirations here are The Wire and The Corner, but other good sources of ideas include Clockers, Boyz N The Hood, La Haine, and The Shield.
Note that the following material is intended purely as a vehicle for storytelling. It’s not an attempt at realism or social commentary. Any resemblance to the lives and problems of real people is entirely coincidental.
The first part of setting up any new campaign is worldbuilding. Here your focus is going to be very much on one particular location – the corner, along with any other parts of the immediate neighbourhood that may be relevant such as local housing projects, schools, parks, shops, community centres, and other places of interest. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the wider aspects of the city – these kids’ horizons are pretty narrow, and claustrophobia and isolation are key themes in the kind of stories we are trying to tell. If you want an easy shortcut, just pick the city you live in, or one you have become familiar with through the magic of TV. The details don’t have to be accurate for them to feel real.
After geography comes people. This is something very closely tied in with character generation, so for now just try to get a feel for who the principal NPCs might be – dealers, teachers, addicts, cops, and other local community figures. The gang the characters belong to is also important, so spend some time as a group thinking about their territory, their enemies, their reputation, and their current problems. Bear in mind that the player characters are very much at the bottom of their food chain, so turf wars, gang leaders, and deals with suppliers are going to be less important than corner beefs, crew chiefs, and re-ups. All of the really exciting King of New York stuff should be happening off screen.
The characters in WtTR should have a power level of either 10 or 15 depending on how old you want them to be. Somewhere between 13 and 18 years old is probably about right, giving them just enough adult smarts to be interesting but also enough residual childlike innocence to be sympathetic. They should all take the cultural and professional archetypes described below; sharing these common traits is part of what makes them brothers, after all.
Cultural Archetype: The Neighbourhood
Keep a Low Profile
Look Out for Number One
Scrape a Living
Word on the Street
Distrust Authority Figures
Hate [rival neighbourhood]
Stick to Your Own
[to other family member]
Professional Archetype: Corner Kid
Know Local Players
Know the Game
Make a Deal
Never Back Down
Run from the Cops
Step to Rival
Brook No Disrespect
Full of Anger
[to crew chief]
[to rival crew]
Note that these templates don’t provide the characters with many non-violent solutions to their problems. This is entirely by design.
Characters in WtTR should never be allowed to take a trademark template under any circumstances. That would totally undermine the kind of stories we are trying to tell. Truth be told, the kind of problems these kids are up against, robot sidekicks and magic powers probably wouldn’t be enough anyway.
Individuality therefore represents your only opportunity to differentiate the characters from one another and make them feel fully three-dimensional. Again, try to keep the constraints of the genre in mind; don’t give your characters Hollywood action movie traits like Crack Shot or Expert Hacker. These are fifteen-year old hoppers in the inner city, not Spy Kids. Instead use your general ability slots to expand on your character’s background, his hobbies, and his everyday natural aptitudes. These are the tools your character must use to try to break out of the cold and desperate life he finds himself trapped in.
Personality traits should normally be positive, to represent those parts of the character’s inner soul that have not yet been tainted or crushed by his home environment – things like Curious or Honest that will contrast with the abilities in his archetypes and provide a rich source of conflict and dramatic irony later on.
Relationships too are a good way of either getting the character into trouble or offering him the hope of potential salvation; these bonds should mostly be with people outside ‘the life’ such as teachers, friends, coaches, employers, and girlfriends. The player characters themselves are supposed to be a tightly knit crew, at least at first, so try to use any remaining relationship slots to make sure these bonds of friendship are well represented on your character sheets.
Goals are what drive each character’s actions, and will therefore play an essential role in either allowing him to try to escape the life or perhaps just flourish within it. Try to include a mix of different types of (perhaps incompatible) goals to represent the anxious uncertainty that most people feel at this stage in their lives.
Flaws by contrast should be tragic and powerful – these are the dark forces of temptation and anger that will try to drag the character down over the course of the campaign. Good examples of such flaws include facts about the character’s family or home life, learning difficulties or psychiatric problems, physical disabilities, addictions, debts, enemies, rivals, burdens of responsibility, and the legacy of past transgressions.
Your supporting cast should be used to fill in any gaps in the characters’ social network – other members of the gang, local junkies and hustlers, parents, teachers, local cops, social workers, guidance counsellors, and so on. Many of these characters will be either neutral or hostile to the player characters – there are few role models here, and even the friendliest seeming adult can have a hidden agenda. Remember that almost everyone in the neighbourhood has Look Out for Number One as a key ability!
Always keep in mind who these kids are and where they come from. Don’t set goals and stakes that are going to be unbelievable in that context; no mere corner kid is going to persuade the DA to drop the case or take out a room full of bad guys with his six-shooter. In fact most instances of violence are going to be short, brutal affairs where scared and untrained combatants fire blindly at each other from a distance of a few feet and then flee at the sound of sirens. This isn’t Reservoir Dogs. Be especially careful with things like reversing the polarity to make sure you are narrating instances of dumb luck and sudden ingenuity rather than spectacular heroics and incredible feats of willpower. And if anyone does get shot… make it hurt! This should be a major life event; shot characters will need physio, counselling, and expensive hospital care, not to mention the services of a lawyer when the police come round asking questions. Depending on the level of defeat they may even be maimed or crippled for life, gaining a nasty flaw that should be brought in as a negative trait penalty every chance you get.
A good length for a WtTR campaign is somewhere between three and six sessions. The first session is all about getting to know these kids and establishing what their lives are really like. Take this slowly, spending at least a couple of scenes exploring each character’s home life, school life, and life on the corner. Have the characters spend plenty of time with each other too, so they can build up a believable bond of friendship before we spend the rest of the campaign trying to tear them apart. Towards the end of the first session is when you should deploy your trigger event, the catalyst that will activate each character’s prologue ability and put the real story finally into motion.
The middle of the campaign should be spent exploring the consequences of this trigger event and ramping up the pressure on the characters. Use their relationships, their goals, their flaws, and their personality traits to spark conflict between the characters and also between their home lives and their street lives. For example, what does a Fiercely Loyal character do when he finds out that some of his crew are planning to murder a witness… who happens to be a friend of his? What does a character with a Desperate Need to Prove Himself do when his crew gets into a turf war with another gang… at the same time that his increasingly ill mother needs more care and attention?
The final session is when all these events need to finally overspill into a swirling vortex of shit that threatens to drag all the characters down with it. Show no mercy. Tempt them to snitch on one another, betray their families, take what isn’t theirs, and kill the person that’s standing in their way. Find the faultlines that run through their lives and push them, hard. Try to set it up so that by the end of the session each character’s final fate literally rests on one last roll of the dice. Will he pay off that debt and ensure his family’s safety, or will his scheme backfire at the last minute? Will he graduate and secure that life-changing scholarship, or will he have to stay and help out on the corner forever? Will he take down his rival at the vacants and earn his full gang colours, or will he be too slow on the draw and end up crippled for life instead? The GM should pull absolutely no punches here, and if any of the characters manage to score a happy ending they should consider themselves to be very lucky. The game is the game, after all.
Example Complications and Plot Hooks
- A drug-addicted or abusive parent
- School exams/graduation
- Complications around a part-time job
- Conflict within the character’s family
- Sick relatives to look after
- Gang initiation rites
- Get rich quick schemes, attempts at robbery
- Revenge attacks on a rival crew
- Territory disputes
- Someone’s stealing/someone’s snitching (and they’re a friend)
- Local cops clearing the corner
- Homicide or vice investigations
- Redevelopment/social programmes
- Characters must compete against each other for something
- A new supporting character arrives, having just been released from jail
- An awkward customer on the corner
- A bad batch
- The count is down
- Someone tries to rob the stash
- A higher level dealer takes an interest in one of the characters
- The characters are asked to do a special job by their superiors
- The characters find a body or witness a murder
- Someone breaks the ‘code of the street’
- Relationship issues/jealousy
- Police brutality or corruption