Running the Contagion Chronicle

Chronicles of Darkness

This is a preview of the Storytelling chapter from the upcoming Contagion Chronicle. The Kickstarter only has about two days remaining: if you’ve been curious about it, now’s your chance to join the infected!

The Contagion Chronicle is, by default, a crossover game. You can use anything in this book in other games, likeWerewolf or Geist, but it’s designed to enable chronicles in which the characters come from multiple game lines.

This chapter provides the Storyteller with advice on how to run the Contagion Chronicleitself, and how to run Chronicles of Darkness crossover games in general.

Running the Contagion Chronicle

This book is a game of what if: what if everything the characters trusted turned on them, and everything they took for granted flipped upside down? It’s a journey into Wonderland, if Wonderland looked like their shitty studio apartment and their clunker with the blacked-out windows, but felt like the rules they understood no longer applied and everything was what it wasn’t. Taking charge of the situation means opening themselves up to ruin and potentially letting the madness run rampant, through them and everything they love. So running this game means balancing the risk of losing everything and the threat of Armageddon with playability and ensuring the players and their characters retain agency.

Theme and Mood

The Contagion is about loss of control — control of yourself, others, your environment, and your circumstances. Imagine a dementia patient, terrified to realize he no longer remembers his own family or what year it is. He can’t function on his own anymore, and things seem to happen at random. His actions prompt the wrong reactions. People tell him the facts he knows to be true are false, and he has no way of knowing whether they’re right or just lying to take advantage of his confusion. That’s the Contagion.

Unlocking this chronicle’s core themes in play can be tricky, because you want the characters to experience loss and disorientation without letting those experiences spill over onto the players. Open communication and transparency are crucial. You can use musical cues, Clues from the investigation system on Chronicles of Darkness p. 77, and clear pathological language to alert the players that something that seems nonsensical is actually part of the Contagion, and thus they can study and fight it.

Although this book talks about “the Contagion” and “infection” like it’s a disease with observable symptoms, characters won’t know it’s a sickness until they investigate and start to understand the bigger picture. Show them what’s happening, rather than telling them. Don’t say, “this Infrastructure is infected.” Instead, describe the ripple effects and let them come to the conclusion that it’s the Contagion on their own as they dig deeper.

Loss, Change, and Chaos

Go ahead and break things — you have permission. Break smaller things on the local and personal level at tier 1, larger things across whole regions at tier 2, and fundamental things across the world at tier 3. Stop the sun from rising in the morning or setting at night. Let the Faerie lord show mercy for no good reason, and a trusted companion act like a hated enemy with no obvious explanation. Give the characters’ powers unexpected side effects and replace their beloved traditions with nonsense. To raise the stakes, pull the trigger on Chekov’s Contagion. If an outbreak that weakens the Gauntlet doesn’t result in running across a place where it crumbles entirely and the material world merges with Shadow, the players will have trouble taking the threat seriously. Make them fear what happens if they do nothing by showing it to them; it keeps them actively engaged.

Always know exactly what you’re breaking and how, and what else shatters when you do it. Don’t break random things, because then the characters have no hope of unraveling the mystery. Jot down notes on the ripples your changes make. Think about the logical conclusion to a situation in which something important changes, and don’t be afraid to go big. That said, make sure whatever you change affects the characters in some personal way, even in a tier 3 game. Monsters stepping out of portals from another realm all over the world doesn’t matter to your game unless one of those monsters steps into a crowded square and takes a bite out of the players’ favorite ally. Also, make sure you don’t break things until the characters and the players are fully invested in what they have to lose; you have to show them what their normal is before you take it away.

Paranoia and Trust

Very little is sacred when the Contagion gets involved, but that goes for characters, not for players. Characters should doubt their knowledge and senses, but players need to be able to trust you. The group builds the story together; you may control the characters’ enemies, but you yourself are not an enemy. So how do you create a paranoid mood without making players feel anxious themselves?

First, communicate with your players. Make sure they know up front what sort of chronicle they’re getting into if your whole game is the Contagion Chronicle. If you introduce it later, talk to them after the first chapter in which Contagion symptoms appear, and explain that while things are getting strange, you’re not just arbitrarily changing the rules — they have the power to investigate and oppose the madness. Try to introduce the Sworn (and/or the False) in the same chapter, although the players may not learn yet what that means, so they know options exist and a plan is in motion even if they can’t see its shape.

The characters are special: they, the Sworn and the False, are the only ones who can see reality’s sickness. Even others of their own kind act like these nonsense syndromes are the way things have always been, making the protagonists question themselves. Stress this to make the characters feel alone and vulnerable, while the players feel empowered as the only ones who can save the world.

One simple way to close the gap between character paranoia and player trust is with the investigation system. Players feel better about in-game confusion and desperation if they know dice can help them actively progress. An investigation lets them do that and puts some of the power of resolution in their hands. Giving players a participatory role in the narrative through codified rules means giving them agency and helps them feel excited instead of wary about the inexplicable bullshit their characters go through. You can also use the optional conflict resolution system in this chapter, on p. XX.

While characters should experience loss, don’t take away things the players spent Experiences or significant effort to access too often, unless the characters sacrifice them on purpose. That doesn’t mean the Contagion can’t screw around with those things — in fact, it should, because that’s a simple way to make the stakes feel high. Nothing incites a player to action faster than the threat of losing something she earned. Actually remove those things altogether only sparingly, though, unless it’s just for a scene or so. For one thing, players get resentful when you take away things they worked for without their consent. For another, it’s almost always more interesting to make things weirder than to negate them entirely. If the Contagion has an effect on certain kinds of magical powers, it’s better to give them dreaded side effects, make them interact strangely with other phenomena, alter their parameters, have them activate uncontrollably, or fail under specific circumstances. This creates story hooks, while saying such powers just don’t work tends to take story hooks away.

If a character does permanently lose something to the Contagion on which the player spent Experience points, give the Experience points back and let her spend them on something else relevant to the current story; this practice already exists in the Sanctity of Merits rule (Chronicles of Darkness pp. 43-44), but since the Contagion can theoretically mess with innate abilities, apply it across the board.

Anytime a character temporarily loses access to something important or the Contagion affects her in a way that puts her in harm’s way or imposes a significant setback, award the player a Beat or inflict a Condition (which provides a Beat when it resolves). Beats are how the system incentivizes players to accept or create narrative twists that get their characters in trouble and up the stakes, so the Contagion’s effects should always provide Beats whenever they cash in on the threatened horror of loss and paranoia. If this happens in direct service to acting against the Contagion or supporting the Sworn, make them Sworn Beats.

Don’t let the Contagion mess with Vector powers, though, because the Sworn specifically developed them as a reaction to the Contagion in the first place.