So, you’ve just bought the SLA Industries rulebook, read through it and you begin to feel just like the fresh SLA Operative who has left Meny a few hours ago and now sets foot onto the streets of Mort Central. And now you begin to wonder what do with the game. My suggestion: read it again. And again. I have lost count of how often I have read the rulebook until now, but each time I re-read it I discover something new that I have missed the previous time. SLA is a game that has so many concepts, so many information hidden in its text that it can be intimidating. So, let’s talk a bit about the game first.
What is SLA? It is not your typical cyberspace dystopia with the roles switched. True, the players take on the roles of Operatives for “the corporation”, but the game is not about stopping a team of terrorists bent on destroying corporate assets or stealing corporate secrets and looking cool while doing so. Neither is it about living out supremacy fantasies by playing the enforcers of a totalitarian regime sent out to suppress the population.
It is also not about guns. No really. The book is full of great looking pictures of operatives in cool armour waving around big guns and menacing blades, but still I tell you that it is not about big guns. The World of Progress is full of violence, there is slaughter all around the clock, but that is only one of the faces that commerce has taken in the World of Progress – and if you look closely you see that even SLA Industries’ corporate-sponsored violence is not about guns. It is up close and personal – blades, martial arts and unarmed combat – so that everybody watching can see the horror in the face of the dying.
And that’s what SLA is about: horror. In SLA the horror has many faces. The characters may be ordered to act as enforcers for a totalitarian regime, but you as a GM can switch this from a supremacy fantasy to a scene of horror by focussing on the results of the character’s actions, by playing on the moral aspects and by haunting the characters with the consequences of their actions. Even if the characters do their work only grudginly or perhaps even reject to do it, they cannot evade the consequences. They should slowly begin to realize that they have sold away their souls when they signed the contract of employment. From this day on, every following day is a day spent fighting against the moral corruption of the system – and this is a fight no operative, whether soulless company clone or secret subversive, not even the most certified psychotic can evade. That there are also real monsters in the World of Progress, be they Manchines, Carriens or Carnivours Pigs, is just icing on the cake. They are a source for horror that provides shock value, but the real horror – the true horror so to say – is the horror that works on the character’s minds, the horror that stays with them, even after they have climbed out of their armour and put down their weapons. This horror hits close to home, it haunts them in their sleep, making them dread what may come the next day.
SLA is unique in that capability for horror. In my 20 years of gamemastering I haven’t encountered a game that gave me so much potential for psychological horror as SLA does. Part of that stems from the fact that in SLA the characters are not supermen with fancy cool powers. They are mortals with crappy armor and crappy weapons (honestly: look at the damage values of a 10mm round and then compare it to what destructive power a round of the caliber would have in the real world … let alone the fact that the standard rifle caliber in the World of Progress is 10mm). Then there is the setting itself that plays another major part in SLA’s capacity for horror: the World of Progress is like a deep, dark mirror of our world that reflects the worst aspects of the human condition. Take all the misgivings of our society, extrapolate them and you get the World of Progress. And the more familiar a terrifying sight is, the greater is the experienced horror.
The question now is, how do you create horror? Lots has been written about this, and to me it seems every writer of horror stories has put down his personal thoughts on the nature of horror, from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King. So these essays (in the case of King whole books) are the best way to get extensive treatment of the matter. For me though, there are two easy targets to create horror: security and familiarity. Take away a character’s security and he will begin to fear, take away his familiarity with the situation and he will become insecure, increase the pressure and enhance the alienation and insecurity will give away to fear. Prolong the experience and fear turns to horror.
This, however, usually works best if this growing feeling of alienation and insecurity is spread over a stretch of several scenarios. Which brings us to the next point: SLA usually shines when it is not run as stand alone sessions, but as a series of linked scenarios that tell an ongoing story. This is usually known as a campaign.
Linking several scenarios together in SLA is fairly easy as the game’s BPN structure gives you ample opportunity to throw new things at the characters. Still this may not result in the greatest campaign; the best campaigns usually have an underlying structure and a recurrent theme in them. When I plan out my campaigns, I usually start at the end. I have an inspiration and a starting point, but I begin structuring the campaign from its end. With the final scene of the campaign in my head, I think backwards through the events of the campaign and try to decide which chain of events can lead to this final outcome. This way you create a “perfect story”, a way the campaign can work, a “red thread” that links the scenarios. Most of the time, this even gives you inspiration for more stories to fill the gaps in the campaign. Of course, a campaign will never run exactly as you planned it, because the players will do things that you couldn’t envision. Still, having a “red thread” of things that may happen, helps you keep the campaign on track.
To visualize campaigns, it is easiest to compare a campaign with a TV series that has an ongoing story. Best example in my book is Babylon 5 (don’t let the last season spoil your enjoyment of the previous four though). In this series you have several story arcs (e.g. the Shadow war, the Earth/Mars conflict, Earth coup, etc.); all of them take several stories, most even all seasons to resolve. You have these story arcs in a campaign as well – they are the “underlying structure” I previously mentioned. Besides providing structure, they also help the players getting attached to the game. They provide recurrent villains, familiar faces and favourite places.
And of course, with all things that become dear to the character, they are also perfect targets to evoke horror. This feeling of all-pervading horror is important in SLA; it showcases that the World of Progress is not a nice and happy place, no – it is a horrible, miserable place where life is cheap and joy and happiness is short (if it exists at). Operatives are the lucky ones, they have some comforts, they have the cash they can spend to try and drown all that misery in a spree of drugs, sex and violence, but in the end they must realize that they have become part of the system that keeps the World of Progress this way. This realization of personal responsibilty is part of the underlying and unrelenting horror inherent in the setting of SLA Industries.
But let’s come back to creating campaigns: if the totality of a television series equals a campaign, the single episodes of the series equal individual scenarios. Designing a single scenario of a campaign is similar to designing the whole campaign. Again here it helps to start with the end. Again create a chain of events and then break up these events into modular building blocks that can be switched around as the story progresses. So instead of saying that the character can pick up a certain piece of crucial information only at a certain spot, make that spot variable. This way you don’t have to rely on the players picking up the clues you leave them; instead you can advance the plot whenever you feel that the story is beginning to loose momentum.
As an example let’s consider a fairly simple BPN. The characters are ordered to find a Serial Killer, they know the general area he strikes and they even have a ThirdEye News team with them. Your BPN outline is this: the characters are in the area of the most recent slayings and try to figure out how best to catch the killer. While they still do, the ThirdEye crew gets is forwarded an emergency call from an apartment block in the vicinity. Apparently the killer is at work there. The characters rush over to the Apartment Block, desperately search for the flat and arrest the killer.
Now you could detail the specific flat where the characters will find the killer, but chances are that the players will want to go everywhere, even into the cellar and from there into the sewers, but they won’t even come close to that particular flat (trust me – that is typical player behaviour). Instead do not detail the flat, let the characters storm a few flats, let them interact with the civilians there, all the way increasing the pressure on them by reminding them that the clock is ticking away. Perhaps let them even find a few bodies. When you think that the time is right, let them find the right flat (it just is the flat they are about to storm into) and let them face the killer.
If you keep this modular structure of BPNs you can “salvage” the story even if the players do not want to go where you originally intended them to go by placing your modular story elements into their path. You keep control over the way the story develops and – more importantly – you keep control over the pacing of the story.
We spoke about what the game is, we spoke about campaigns and single scenarios, but what we haven’t spoken about is how to run the game. First, get the right players. SLA is not a game for players who want to play a dystopian version of Shadowrun. It is an urban horror game, not an action game. It has action elements and it certainly has action scenes, but the focus of the game lies elsewhere. My best SLA sessions were sessions without a single fight, pure character interaction, pure roleplaying. Most of the time we didn’t even needed dice for these sessions.
So getting the right players – or getting the players into the right mood – is crucial. Once you have your players remember that the game is not a gore-fest. With so much violence in the World of Progress, it is easy to lose track, and end up playing a power-game. One of the indicators for a power game is that players focus especially on combat and not on character interaction, that the characters begin to resemble ammo lockers instead of human beings and that you are beginning to have problems challenging the players, since everything is blasted away the second it enters the scene.
If your players begin to focus on combat and nothing else, let them live out their power fantasies. Give in to what they crave, let them slaughter themselves through DownTown. And then turn the tables on them. Make them the hunted, since SLA Industries begins to regard them as rogue agents and has authorized Cloak Division to hunt down this new Cognate of Spree Killers. With SLA support no longer available, they will begin to run out of ammo soon, all their hardware will be useless (here again you see the concepts of loss of control and loss of familiarity at work). They will need to go DownTown to trade away their weapons for inferior Black Market equipment. From then on their situation should begin to deteriorate rather quickly. They are in an unknown territory, SLA is bringing down its might to crush them and the denizens of DownTown are certainly not SLA friendly – especially not SLA friendly to ex-SLA operatives who have lost all company support.
Another way to deal with problem players in-game is to try to play up the moral aspects of their deeds, hoping that the players are not as sociopathic as the characters. Still you might be cursed with players who resist all your attempts to keep the game on track. In this case stop the game and ask them what they would rather play, since the game they want to play obviously isn’t SLA. This is a tough decision, but to keep playing means nothing but wasting their and your time in the end, because neither the players nor you get what they expect out of the game sessions. And in this case it is better to abort than to force a game onto the players that they do not want to play.
Apart from that, running SLA is fairly easy. Watch horror movies and analyze how the director creates atmosphere. Two good movies to analyze for techniques are David Fincher’s “Se7en” and Alex Proyas “The Crow”, both superbly atmospheric movies. Borrow these techniques. When describing a scene, include not only vision but other senses as well, smell, hearing, touch. Your descriptions will be more memorable.
Then there is the supernatural. Although the World of Progress seems to be a primarily rational universe, there are certains aspects that are certainly not rational. To name only a few, the Ebon Ebb ablilities, the White, DeathWake, LAD spring directly to mind. For me the term “urban horror” always meant that if SLA features the worst aspects of urban culture, it also has to feature urban superstition, urban legends. So it’s perfectly OK to allude to or even include aspects of the Bloody Mary, haunted houses or Candyman stories into your scenarios. As long as you keep these references and occurances limited everything is fine. Beware though not to over-use them – instead of creating mystery and unfamiliarity, the supernatural will only seem mundane and routine. And that is the death of everything supernatural (first season Millennium always had an atmosphere of supernatural in its stories while only a handfull actually had a supernatural element. In the second season the supernatural was literally around every corner – it got stale and routine very quickly …). Also be prepared to have an explanation for your supernatural occurances, since the players will want to know if that house is really haunted or if it was only the character’s imagination that played tricks on them.
Exploiting the character’s subjective point of view is another useful technique that you can employ while running SLA. Instead of telling the players straight what their characters see, differentiate. Adress each player in turn, describing what his character sees and how his character interprets what he sees. So while one character recognizes the dark form aproaching through the alley to be the squad’s financier, the Frother in the group who has just shot up his hourly dosis of UV, sees a bloated form shambling towards them and reaches for his power claymore, ready to attack. If done right, this technique again increases uncertainty, since the players can no longer trust what their characters see. Again this is unsettling and leads to alienation and fear. As with supernatural occurances, do not overuse this technique, but employ it in situations where the characters` senses are likely to play tricks on them (e.g. stress, unfamiliar territory, darkness, etc.).
There is much more that can be said about running SLA, but I fear this essay has to come to an end. I hope you take something useful out of it and I hope that it helps you in running the best SLA sessions ever. So, enjoy the game … and don’t rock the boat.