Continuing with play reports from Big Bad Con: Friday morning in Games on Demand, I ran Meguey Baker’s At the Stroke of Midnight (Night Sky Games). The premise:
The sun sinks in the sky, bringing long shadows and a wisp of cool air. In a handful of hours it will be midnight. The veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is growing thinner with each passing moment. At midnight it will open, and those who are able to stand unshaken before the Beloved Dead will be allowed a boon. You and your friends set out for the graveyard, each eager to meet the Beloved Dead and ask a favor from those who have gone before.
It felt perfect to play in October.
System and Setup
Meguey released it three years ago; the full version which I was using is on her Patreon site, but she also released a basic free version on her Medium blog, so you can take a look.
I had scheduled it as a two-hour game, but it’s hard to gauge how long a given episode will take: you can play with 2 to 6 players and the Yahtzee-like mechanics make it difficult to guess when the end is near. As play aids, I had created a cheat sheets for the Signs; and I used my dry-erase Noteboard so we could draw the elements we created. The signs are indicated by rolling two or more dice with the same pip value:
Snake Eyes (two or more ones) — animals, lights in strange places, and things that bite.
Ballerinas (two twos (or more)) — your fellow seekers, costumes, disguises, and things not as they appear.
Little Woods (two or more threes) — trees, brambles and environmental obstacles.
Bootlaces (two or more fives) — grit, remembering good things about your Beloved Dead, strength of purpose.
Squares (two or more fours) — stone structures, roads, paths and written signs.
Box Cars (two or more sixes) — sounds, vehicles, movement.
It’s a GM-less little game, so I facilitated but also played. My players were Aaron, Justen, and Melissa. We made up the following:
This old, small isolated U.S. Midwest town was once a bustling center from the time in the 19th century when the railroad was being built to the end of the railway heyday after World War II. It’s located along a river between two stone bridges.
The cemetery, located on a flat area above the river and below the rail line, is reputed haunted, although the younger generation speak of it only in jest; but it’s a sort of local holiday to visit the graveyard after Hallowe’en on All Souls’ Day to ask a boon of your ancestors.
The time is twenty years in our future, circa 2040, and the local economy is in a slump.
[Everyone rolled their ten dice and got at least one 5 so no one was spooked, Some had a LOT of 5s which, in Turn 1, allow you to describe a small personal item you can later drop in order to resist being spooked later. I did allow players to set them aside and not describe the items yet if they wished to save them for later so they would fit better in the fiction. We described the following seekers:]
Danny (played by Aaron), a teenager, is here to talk to his father who had been a blue collar worker who lived his whole life in the town. Danny remembers walking here in the dark on that night of the year, with the reassuring presence of his father.
Amy (played by Melissa), a woman in her early twenties, is a young scientist working on creating the next level of cyber personalities, imprints of entire personalities. She’s here not because of silly superstitions, but to look for the crypt where her grandmother is buried. Her grandmother was also a scientist, and her notes might be buried with her. Amy is autistic [modeled after someone in Melissa’s life]; she’s wearing earphones to isolate herself from other people. She’s thinking about her grandmother whose research was an inspiration.
Morgan (played by Justen), in his late twenties, is a short, squat, dark-haired man hoping to talk to the spirit of his older brother. He carries a bottle opener on a keychain from his brother. He’s never been here before for that night but he remembers his older brother coming back refreshed, soothed.
Cora (played by me), a sixteen-year-old girl of Native American ancestry, is here to check if her sister who has been missing for nearly a year is here among the dead. It’s the first time she’s ever been here to speak to the dead.
[We proceeded to describe details based on the signs we had rolled.]
The oldest part of the graveyard is near a derelict, abandoned church. When the town became prosperous and the dead too numerous, a new church was built in town and the graveyard expanded, swallowing the old church and rolling past. Migrating bats stop at the church spire, adding to the atmosphere.
Shrieking kids and more solemn adults walk through the cemetery on that night, carrying candles and flashlights; the more traditionalists wear a black scarf. A hazy light briefly shines at the old church belfry, outlining the flitting bats.
The ground is uneven in the older part of the graveyard, but a newer central walkway has been built in the more recent section; it’s built of red marble and carries sound—one can always hear steps from it. It leads from the entrance to a mausoleum in Neoclassical style in the newer part of the graveyard, which displays holograms of people buried here. The holograms are “old” now and flicker at random.
In the dark, the seekers hear the faint sound of one of the electric vehicles used by the maintenance personnel, but there is none to be seen.
[We roll any dice that did not come up a 5 in Turn 1. New 5s are set aside; they won’t be used as personal items but they won’t be rolled again.]
Startled by the sound, Danny drops his headphones and can’t find them again in the darkness.
Amy is momentarily fooled by a hologram of her grandma and starts talking to her, then realizes her mistake with annoyance. Her imprints will be truly interactive!
On the rail track above the graveyard, a train whistle sounds. An old train, the kind that has not been seen in ages, pulls in. An electric vehicle pulls up to the train…
Morgan remembers riding in the back of his brother’s car, music playing.
Children walk past the four seekers, dressed exactly like them, then disappear in the darkness ahead.
The seekers walk into a maze of brambles which they don’t remember being there before. All the paths through seem to lead towards the train rather than to the far end of the graveyard where the old church stands. A sign near the train reads: “Next departure 12:01.”
A bat, highlighted by the train’s headlight, flies into the locomotive’s open window.
Stumbling in the night, Amy loses her fidget spinner and picks up a smooth stick to replace it. Morgan drops his brother’s lighter. Danny hides in the brush and is bitten by a spider.
The seekers see dark silhouettes waking from the cemetery toward the train. Steam hisses from the train but no steps can be heard from the central walkway anymore.
Danny notices the shabby clothes of those walking by, recognizes the face of a girl he used to know.
Coral drops a holopic of her sister Alicia, and Danny loses his pocket knife. Morgan meets a litter of feral cats, locally known as the “Graveyard Watch.”
Danny thinks the passengers getting on the train are those without hope. As he tries to get through to a man that looks like his father, the PA system comes on with a last call for boarding.
Morgan loses his black scarf, which had belonged to his father.
[At this point, we’re coming up on the the end of our allotted time and we still have some signs to resolve but we narrate the endgame instead.]
Amy is convinced that a perfectly natural but unexplained phenomenon takes place on that night that would make it easier to record an imprint. She will be back next year.
Danny and Morgan give enough hope to their Beloved Dead to fade away after midnight rather than board the train of the hopeless. Maybe they can talk next year.
Cora sees her sister among the dead and now has her answer. She will be able to mourn.
No one gets a boon, but life goes on.
Photo: Graveyard at dawn CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Roy Schreffler.
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