So what did I do?
I used the target numbers as a pacing mechanic. Like the countdown, they should escalate as the game progresses, so things become harder and more threatening as time goes on.
The scenario I’d sketched out in my mind placed the PCs in a secret installation beneath Tibet, a huge particle accelerator built by the Chinese government, designed to crack open quantum theory and prove or disprove string theory. What happens is that the first experiment is a success – and the PCs are part of a group splintered off into an alternate mini-dimension, forever disconnected from the “real” world – set adrift.
Everything begins to become unhinged – mechanical and digital systems, the characters’ memory and sanity, even gravity near the end, as this splinter dimension ‘forgets’ how it is supposed to function and spins down rapidly to entropy. Others on the station have figured this out and are overcome with despair and begin killing each other and themselves. Each of the PCs comes to, suddenly having a moment of clarity in the midst of either committing suicide or killing someone else. They briefly ‘reset’, forgetting some of what has happened but also being able to think clearly. So each of the characters start in the midst of something awful and then go on to figure out what is going on from there, while the clock is ticking and everything is going apeshit around them.
In the beginning the targets are around 2. One PC comes to locked in mortal combat with a crazed old man trying to drive a syringe into his eye; another in the midst of hanging himself, a third locked in her room being suffocated in her bed. They get out pretty easily, begin to get a handle on the system, etc. This is kind of like the Prelude.
Act One has mostly target numbers of 3 or 4. This includes seeing the first dead bodies, or people dying, in horrible but relatively ‘mundane’ ways, as well as changing locks and that kind of thing. Stuff that a skilled professional can do, or someone with a strong stomach can tolerate (humorously, two player characters had Conviction as their dump-stat of 1 and got Fear from everything).
Act Two, in my mind, starts involving the really messed up shit that is at the heart of everything – they find out much more about the awful situation they’re all in, they see the piles of bodies, etc. This is where targets of 5 and even 6 come into play, where everything starts to hit the fan. The Countdown should be low at this point, and ideally everyone is sweating bullets.
Act Three is when the Ace of Spades comes off the table and things escalate before the inevitable end. These target 5 and 6 tests come at you one after another, and even a 7 here and there to push people in the right direction and let them know that even if they work together and have some Traits, they can still fail.
For each of the Acts, I had what I called a Pressure Menu (yeah, I know, I need a better name). On this menu, I just listed bad things that I can have happen to push things forward. A guy jumps out of a doorway screaming and leaps on one of the PCs. They find out X scary information. They find a trail of blood leading to a person who is in the last moments of suicide – someone they know, care about. Etc. Then, if I feel myself getting bored, or antsy, I have one of these things happen and slap a couple of numbers on it appropriate to the approximate “Act” I’m in .
What if the players skip ahead in my story?
Take off a card and escalate things to the next Act. Do the exact things you’d already planned, but increase the target number by 1 or 2. Presto! Drama and fear ensue.
What if it takes too long?
Same answer as above. When in doubt, escalate.
What if I set the Countdown wrong?
It only has to be as regular as you want it to be.
What if they go off the rails entirely?
Take a moment to look at the obstacles you’ve set up to put in their path. Which ones can just be moved to the new location? Zombies and security doors and so on can come up whenever, frankly.
Then find the things that won’t fit and change the fluff, leaving the obstacle there and about as bad as it was. If it was one named NPC, make it another named NPC. If it was a physical threat, make it another kind of physical threat.
Plan everything so that the PCs die horribly.
Put enough tests in there to wear them down entirely. Balance things against them. Make the Countdown account for about 1/2 to 2/3 of the expected length of the session. Escalate things early and capriciously.
The players are signing up to see their characters die and go insane in delicious ways. That’s what this is all about. It is not about triumph (though sometimes the PCs may do just that). It is about doing terrible things to each other’s characters and enjoying every minute of it. By the time the last card comes up off the Countdown and the game ends, the players should be on the verge of getting out alive, or have some hope still glimmering, and then you stifle it forever.
Most psychological tests, involving Conviction, will occur when a PC encounters something awful. Just set a number for these tests like you would any other – and make sure to include some 5s and 6s to that everyone can enjoy the fun…
2 Seeing something very frightening but within your normal experience – like watching a car accident
3 Something possibly a little traumatizing, like seeing a car accident when someone is thrown through their windshield
4 This is bad, bad stuff, like seeing someone killed and their severed head falls in your lap, staring up at you, and blinks at you before all of the blood drains out
5 Heinous crimes at the limits of what you can imagine a person doing – like being caught in the The Cell or seeing the Wolf Creek guy at work on a loved one or two
6 You really are a sick fuck. Nice job.