Chapter 31: Distractions

The first thing that makes Blue reconsider his enthusiasm is the sheer number of geodude, zubat, sandshrew, graveler, and other pokemon flooding out of the hole in the mountain.

The second is the cloud of spores that pour out after them, disguised and mingled with the dust of the collapsed earth. Blue watches as a graveler pulls itself up into the sunlight and takes two stumbling steps forward, then collapses onto its face to reveal a back covered in visibly growing fungus.

Goosebumps break out along his arms as a childhood fear returns, spawned by nights of staying up past his bedtime to secretly watch zombie movies. Until his parents died, waking to find his friends and family stumbling around with blank white eyes and fungal caps was his most recurring nightmare.

Migrating parasect colony, or maybe a rampage, started a stampede. Fire and Flying pokemon are top priority. He pulls his facemask on and unhooks Zephyr’s ball, then hesitates as the wave of fleeing pokemon approaches them. Hopefully they’re too panicked to do anything but run, but if he summons a pokemon in front of them they might attack it-

“Steven and Janet, clear that cloud out! Everyone to the west of the opening, move north or south immediately!”

The voice comes from Ryback’s radio, and the group skids to a halt as they realize within seconds of each other that they’re in the danger zone. Leaf breaks southward first, and the rest follow her, keeping an eye out for the stampeding pokemon that run or fly past them, oblivious to their doom.

A trio of sandshrew scurry toward them in an intersecting route, and Ryback unclips a ball and throws, summoning a sandslash in a blink. “Keep going!” he tells them as he stops behind his pokemon.

The trio doesn’t even exchange a look, all three stepping beside him and summoning Maturin, Bulbasaur and Spearow. The oncoming sandshrew hesitate, then dive under the ground. They brace themselves for an attack, but after a few seconds the pokemon pop out of the ground behind them and keep fleeing.

They withdraw their pokemon and continue southward until they reach one of the portable buildings and run behind it. “I had that handled,” Ryback says. “If you want to help, you’ll have to defer to those of us here. Understood?”

Blue opens his mouth just as another voice speaks from the radio. “This is Janet, we’re in position. If anyone’s not clear, say so now.”

Ryback presses his radio button. “Ryback here, we’re clear, over.”

“Hiro clear, over.”

“Natalie and Carmin, clear, over.”

Stupid, she said to say something if you’re not clear. The last of the pokemon from the hole are dispersing past them, and Blue fights the urge to take out pokeballs to grab some. It seems like such a waste to just let them run by, but they might have a chance to pick some up later, and it’s not worth the risk of starting an unnecessary fight in such a volatile situation.

“Incoming whirlwind, over.”

They watch as the cloud of dust and spores gets caught in a slowly building cyclone, and shift in a slow spiral as it blows westward. It sails over the fleeing pokemon in its path before dispersing into the open air past the edge of the mountain. Blue watches the heavier pokemon that don’t get swept up collapse, skin covered in spores.

With the obscuration out of the way, they can see the dozens of crimson paras and parasect crawling over the mountain in outward waves, emitting a new fog of spores as they go.

The voice of the ACE on the radio is calm. “Parasect colony is climbing out of the mountain. Fire pokemon out front, Flying in support. Poison special attackers. Everyone else, watch for strays. If at all possible, try and protect the fossils. Rangers are inbound, first ETA is fifteen minutes. Over.”

Ryback raises it to his mouth. “This is Ryback, we’ve got about a dozen pokemon that were in the path of the twister growing shrooms, over.”

“Natalie here, I’ve got it, over.”

Ryback reclips his radio, then turns to the trio. “What have you got?”

“Charmander,” Red says. Nidoran and Spinarak are Poison, but not special attackers.

“We have pidgey,” Blue says, cocking a thumb at Leaf.

“They’re not enough, but the charmander might help. You’re with me, Red.”

Red hesitates, then nods and steps forward as he unclips Charmander’s ball. Ryback turns to Blue and Leaf. “Can you two hold a perimeter?” Blue and Leaf nod. “Good. This is one of the buildings we’ve been storing fossils in. Keep any rampaging pokemon from destroying it, if you can, and stop them from coming up behind us.”

Ryback moves around the building and toward the oncoming swarm of paras and parasect. Red’s face is pale, but he raises his fist, and Blue bumps it.

“Guess it’s your turn for thrilling heroics.”

“At least your arm’s not broken.”

Leaf hugs Red. “Be careful. Watch the cross-wind.”

Blue smirks as his friend freezes, then awkwardly pats her shoulder. “I will. Keep Blue out of trouble.”

“Why do I always get nanny duty?” Leaf grumbles, lips twitching upward.

“I’m sorry, of the three of us, which has a badge again?” Blue asks.

Red gives a weak smile and jogs after Ryback. Blue and Leaf watch him go, then summon Zephyr and Crimson as they move back to back to cover both sidelines.

“Zephyr, scout!”

“Crimson, scout!”

Blue watches Zephyr loop around them in the air, slowly scoping the area for any approaching threats. He keeps his gaze on the ground, watching for any telltales signs of pokemon burrowing under the surface.

To his right, Blue can just make out the beginning of the assault in his periphery. Blasts of fire and gusts of wind hit the expanding cloud of spores from multiple directions, keeping it and the insects emitting it, or more accurately the mushrooms on their backs, from advancing. There’s an occasional boom as fire causes a pocket of spores to combust all at once.

Blue wipes sweaty palms against his pants. Red and Charmander would be backup to the more experienced trainers with stronger fire pokemon, picking off any paras that get too close, or helping cleanse the bodies of overrun pokemon before they begin emitting their own spores. They wouldn’t be near the center of the fighting, and should have plenty of time to fall back if they get overrun…

He forces himself to go back to scanning the rest of the digsite, where wild pokemon continue to run around haphazardly. The occasional ACE or scientist rushing to join the main fight engages them, whether by their choice or the pokemon’s, and three separate battles break out in Blue’s field of vision.

“If one of them need help, and we’re just standing here doing nothing…” Leaf says behind him.

“Yeah.” Zephyr lets out a warning cry as a group of zubat flutter by. Blue feels the merciful cool of the battle calm descending as they flutter and loop closer and closer, only to soar away when Zephyr gives a louder battle screech. As they go, his antsy excitement returns, sending useless energy through his arms and legs, commanding him to go, fight, help.

A gout of flame to his left makes Blue turn to see a woman with a flareon cleansing the pokemon that were caught in the spore cloud. She reaches a graveler that shudders as soon as the flame finishes washing over it, and a flash of light quickly captures it before she moves on to the next, making her way toward the mountain’s edge.

“Got movement here,” Leaf says. Blue unclips Maturin’s ball and looks over his shoulder to see a growing bulge moving through the ground as something digs beneath it. “Go, Bulbasaur!”

Her pokemon flashes into existence just as the sandshrew reveals itself. “Vine whip!”

Her pokemon extends its vines and rears them back, but the sandshrew dives back underground before they can land. They watch the sandshrew burrow away, and Leaf reclips her ball without withdrawing Bulbasaur.

“Do you think-”

Leaf is interrupted by a heavy rumble beneath them that sends both to their knees. “Either someone just used Earthquake, or we need to get off this side of the mountain,” she says. “More of them might be coming up under us.”

“There might be an onix digging around to get away from them, but it probably won’t head any farther up.”

“Probably?”

“Hopefully. What do you want to do, sound a full retreat? They might not want to leave their fossils.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. “ACE is in charge of security, maybe we can get one of them to-”

This time both Zephyr and Crimson give warning cries as another flock of zubat race toward them. In the space of a heartbeat it becomes clear that these are not going to just fly by, and the battle calm is there like a cool cloak round his shoulders.

One, three, five, six, seven. Blue braces his arm. “Go, Maturin! Water Gun!”

“Bulbasaur, return! Go, Ledyba! Supersonic!”

Water and sound knock a zubat out of the sky and send two more tumbling in different directions, and then their pidgey engage the rest of them. The zubat are smaller and more agile, but the birds are ever so slightly faster, keeping ahead of the swarm’s poisonous fangs.

Blue and Leaf focus on directing Maturin and Ledyba and let their pidgey’s instincts take over. Blue feels the split in attention keenly as he keeps trying to pay attention to what Zephyr is doing while finding new targets for Maturin, but a distant part of him observes the wider battle, and thinks of ways to end it. “Water Gun! Water Gun! Those three are coming back, we won’t be able to avoid them all.”

“Supersonic! I know, I’m going to withdraw Ledyba before they reach her. Should we Rise and Fall?”

Blue remembers the tactics they practiced on the roof of Viridian and plays it out in his head. “Too slow. Vanishing Act?”

“Need more support. Supersonic! How about a Pinwheel?”

“Alright, on three. Two-Watergun! One!”

“Crimson, defend!”

Crimson breaks away and flies over to hover above her as Blue grabs Maturin off the ground and runs behind them. Part of his skin touches Maturin’s and immediately feels dry and stiff as the moisture is sucked out of it. Blue puts Maturin back down and ignores the ache. “Ready!”

“Crimson, Gust!”

“Zephyr, break!”

Crimson begins flapping hard in the direction of the swarm as Zephyr dips a wing and soars away. The zubat trying to chase both begin to get buffeted by the wind, struggling to make headway against it.

Some begin to break away and approach from above or the sides. Blue points to each in turn with his commands. “Maturin, Water Gun! Zephyr, Quick Attack!” Spurts of water continue to knock zubat out of the air, and Zephyr is a tan blur as he zips back and forth to harry them from behind. The zubat try to fly around the column of wind, but Leaf pivots Crimson with them, wheeling the wild pokemon in a slow arc.

One by one zubat begin to drop to the ground and fail to rise, or turn to flee. But soon Crimson tires, and Maturin runs out of water. As soon as the wind dies down, the remaining four zubat close the gap in a blink.

“Maturin, Return! Go, Kemuri!”

“Ledyba, Supersonic! Crimson, Wing At-Crimson return!”

Leaf’s beam hits her pokemon as it screeches in pain, cutting the sound off as it vanishes in a red glow. Blood and feathers finish falling from where it was as the zubat wheel around in confusion, then go for Ledyba.

“Ledyba, return!”

“Kemuri, Extrasensory!”

The zubat begin to crash into each other, screeching in alarm and pain. One of them uses their own supersonic wail, causing Blue to uselessly clap his hands over his ears. Blue’s vision swims as he feels the sound in his sinuses, the pressure waxing and waning in a way that makes his head feel like a squeezed water balloon.

Blue drops to all fours and curls up into a ball as the vertigo sets in, flashing back to years of training drills in school. Their instructor stood in front of the class, speaking as they demonstrated the proper response to the audio assault they were all about to endure. The best defense against moves that cause mental confusion is to focus on what your body is doing. Maintain a physical position that’s low to the ground, and eliminates your body’s ability to hurt itself.

Sharp pain blooms as Blue’s nails scrape at his ears, and he tucks his hands under his knees to pin them with his weight. The abrasion of the soil and pebbles against his skin grounds him as the wail goes on and on and o-

Blessed silence. No, not silence, but without the audio scalpel of their cry, everything seems so muted. Blue uncurls and pushes himself up, knees wobbling.

He expects to see the zubat all dead or captured, but two are still in the air. What felt like a minute under sonic siege was only seconds as the beam of high pitched sound was either directed elsewhere, or died with one of the zubat on the ground.

Leaf throws a pair of pokeballs that capture them, and Blue aims his at the ones still in the air. His nerves are rattled, but the battle-calm is still there, and he draws it tighter around himself to block out the stinging pain of his self-inflicted ear cuts. He tracks the zubat as they flutter in panicked circles and loops under Kemuri’s mental onslaught, one ball on each, letting his thoughts drift so that his arms move purely on reflex, tracking the two pokemon…

Ping! He throws one, sucking it out of the air. The second ball pings another lock, and he throws again just as the zubat stops flapping its wings. Its frail body plummets and bounces against the ground once before lying still.

Blue quickly unhooks another ball and captures it before letting his breath out in a rush. He turns to Kemuri, whose eyes are just beginning to return to normal as his posture slowly relaxes. “Good job, Kemuri. Guard.” He takes out a pokepuff and tosses it to his pokemon, then brings Maturin back out and lets her empty his spare water bottle before giving her a pokepuff too.

“You okay?” Leaf asks. “Your left ear is bleeding.”

Blue checks and winces as the cut behind his ear stings at his touch. “Fine. How’s Crimson?” He takes out a potion and sprays his ear.

“I’m going to wait for a pokemon center to take him back out.” She begins to pick up her new zubat and check them with her pokedex, face growing longer after each. “Both gone. Yours?”

Leaf’s voice is flat, and Blue gives her a searching look. He’s about to ask if she’s okay, but holds his tongue. Maybe she’s wearing her own cloak. Blue checks the two zubat he caught. “One’s okay.” He releases the dead one, then goes to get the pokeball that missed.

Around them, the war for the mountainside continues unabated. A few dozen figures hold the line against the paras and parasect in the distance, while random wild pokemon are fought and taken down by the rest of the trainers spread out around the dig site. Zephyr comes down to land on Blue’s shoulder, and his talons bite into the undermesh of his shirt. Blue stifles a cry and resists the urge to chase his pokemon off. Zephyr is quivering with exhaustion, and Blue strokes him instead. “Forgot about the great job you did up there, boy,” he mutters as he picks up the pokeball and tucks it away, then gives his pidgey some berries and a pokepuff. “You’ll be a new terror in the sky when you’re all grown up.”

After one last look at the main battlefield, Blue returns to Leaf and Kemuri. “Zephyr’s tired. Think we’ll-”

Click, clickclick, click!

Blue and Leaf blink. “What was-”

Thud, thud, thudthudthudrrrrrrrrrrrrr-

Blue and Leaf look around wildly for the source of the noise, then look at each other.

“The other-

-side, move!”

CRASH

A graveler bursts through the building in a hail of broken wood and glass as Leaf and Blue throw themselves away from the rolling boulder. Zephyr launches back into the air with a shriek of protest, and Blue’s other two pokemon flinch at the hail of shrapnel.

“Kemuri, Leaf Blade!” Blue yells as he scrambles to his feet. “Zephyr, back!” Zephyr aborts his dive midway, while Kemuri leaps at the graveler and slashes it across the face.

The graveler roars in pain and tries to body-slam Kemuri, who leaps backward. Blue is about to command Maturin when another loud clickclick is heard.

Blue resists the urge to turn around and look for the source of the sound: he knows better than to take his eyes off a pokemon in a battle. A moment later he’s glad he does, because he sees the graveler freeze, then throw itself onto its face, grabbing the earth with all four hands.

Blue’s battle calm crystallizes into one last insight, then shatters in a flood of icy panic. “Self-destruct!” he yells as his hands fly to his pokeballs to withdraw everyone. “Return, Maturin! Return, Kemuri!” Blue’s every heartbeat is like a timer counting down, and rather than risk wasting any more seconds trying to return Zephyr he simply starts running and yells “Zephyr, back!”

Leaf has already taken off for the opposite side of the ruined building, and skids to a stop before diving behind it. Blue wants to yell for her to keep running, but it may be their only chance. Not gonna make it, he thinks with another spurt of panic, and runs faster. Shit shit shit-

Blue hears Leaf yell “Hey, get down!” and wonders if she’s talking to him before he reaches the end of the building and sees a paleontologist with a heavy rucksack standing there with a nonplussed look on his face. A distant part of Blue recognizes him as the one that was giving Red and him the evil eye earlier.

And then a giant, hot hand presses its palm against his back and shoves just as a massive BOOM leaves his ears ringing for the second time in five minutes.

Blue lies in a crumpled heap until the world stops spinning and he can finish testing for broken bones. His elbow feels like it shattered when he rolled into a rock, but he can move it, and he smacked his head against the ground pretty bad, but he doesn’t feel nauseous or disoriented.

I should be dead. What was that, 200 feet at most?

He realizes he can vaguely hear something through the ringing that might be Leaf calling his name, and shifts around until he can see her relieved face looking down at him.

“Leaf,” he mutters. “Ylright?”

She sticks a thumb up, then starts spraying potion liberally over his head and neck and shoulders. He points a finger to his elbow, where the outer part of his shirt was shredded to reveal the mesh under it. He’s glad it was there to save him from losing skin, but he almost changes his mind at the pain of Leaf rolling his sleeve down to see the damage.

His elbow looks badly bruised, but doesn’t seem to be broken. The bone might be cracked, but at the first spray of potion he feels the pain lessen, and after a few more the swelling goes down enough for him to flex his arm with minimal pain.

Zephyr lands next to him, and a wave of relief makes him dizzy. Or maybe that’s the start of a concussion. He pats his pidgey with his good arm, then returns him to his ball and stands up with Leaf’s help.

A couple uncomfortable squirts in his ears has him shaking his head and trying to get the liquid out, but the ringing has stopped enough for him to hear. “We should be dead,” is the first thing he hears.

“I know, I was thinking the same thing. That graveler must have been freshly evolved if its blast was so small.”

Blue looks at the blackened remains of the graveler’s body, and the scorch marks on the ground around it. He considers going over to see if it’s still savable, sometimes with immediate medical attention a self-destructing pokemon can be saved, but he knows the window of opportunity would have passed while he was recovering. Blue’s surprised Leaf didn’t try to save it, but he’s glad she was worried about making sure he was alright.

“Hey, where’s that other guy?”

“He’s inside.” She jerks a thumb at the long, narrow building, which has a huge section torn out of the side. “Said he’s going to check on the fossils.” Blue’s frowning at the visible destruction. “Something wrong?”

“Sorry, yeah, just… was he standing there when you got here?”

Leaf stares at him, then blinks as it registers. “Yeah. He… I wonder why he didn’t yell a warning about the graveler.”

“Didn’t even have a pokemon out, right?”

“No… Blue, those clicks.”

He remembers. Right before they heard the graveler start running for its rollout, then again before the Self-Destruct. “You don’t think…”

He sees his mounting unease reflected in her gaze, and they begin moving toward the building together. “There must be a reasonable explanation,” Leaf says, and Blue notices that she’s whispering now.

Blue unclips a ball, heart pounding. What they’re thinking is crazy, but… better safe than sorry. “Go, Maturin.” He picks his pokemon up after she appears, and steps up into the broken remains of the building. Leaf follows him, hands moving over her right ear.

The inside of the building is a mess of wood and glass and paper. They step over a crushed table and around a cabinet torn partway off the wall to walk toward the opposite end of the rectangular building.

What looks like a storage room is open, and the paleontologist is standing in front of a series of labeled drawers with the rucksack he was wearing at his feet. The one near the middle is open, with rows of grey Container balls nestled in slots documenting where and when they were found.

Most of the slots are empty. The bag looks to be about halfway full.

The paleontologist turns to them as they approach, two more Containers in his hand. He bends and places them in the bag, then securely closes it.

“What are you doing?” Blue asks, throat dry.

“Moving these. It’s not safe here anymore, so I’ve been going around to get these off site.”

“You said you were just going to check on them,” Leaf says, stepping up beside Blue.

“Change of plans. Just got the orders.” His hands never stop moving, and when he finishes tying the bag he slings it over his shoulder. Blue can’t help but stare at the still-open cabinet, with half of its Containers still sitting it, something’s wrong, something’s wrong-

“Stop,” Leaf says, and Blue’s attention snaps to the man’s hand as he unclips a ball from his waist and braces his arm, paying her no mind.

“Go, Abra.”

The squat tan psychic pokemon appears on the floor, sitting quietly with its eyes closed, and Blue is suddenly very afraid and very glad that he’s Dark. “Stop, whatever you’re doing, we need to make sure-”

“Abra, Teleport,” the man says as he reaches forward to put a hand on his pokemon, and with a surge of adrenaline Blue yells “Maturin, Water Gun!” His pokemon, who might normally hesitate to shoot in the direction of a human, focuses on the abra and spits a sharp stream of water out.

The trainer flinches, for just a moment, and in that moment there’s a pop as the abra vanishes, the trainer’s hand an inch away. The water hits the floor and digs a shallow groove in it, and the three are left staring at each other for the space of a heartbeat.

I just ordered my pokemon to attack his outside of a challenge, he was standing right there he might have been hit I could be charged as a Renegade-

“Go, sandslash,” the man says, and suddenly there’s a squat, spiny pokemon standing between them. Blue stares at it, still trying to process what’s happening battle calm where’s my battle calm when the paleontologist says “Slash,” voice tight and angry, face a mask.

Slash. Not Scratch, the generic command for a claw attack, generally safe for trainer battles. Slash, the command that specifies lethal intent, for pokemon specifically trained to recognize and aim for vital organs in their opponent.

And the sandslash moves toward them.

Blue scrambles back, dropping Maturin and opening his mouth to yell a command to her, while Leaf presses something to her left ear and turns around, right hand pointing a pokeball and activating it manually, arm snapping up.

He has a moment to wonder why she’s summoning it behind her, then yells “Withdraw!” as the sandslash claws Maturin across the chest, too quick for her to react. Then Leaf says “Sing!” and Blue snaps his hands up to cover his ears even knowing he’s too la-


Fire and fungi. Birds and bugs. Poison and paras. Simple equations with obvious outcomes, if the variables are anywhere near even. A single arcanine could scorch dozens of paras to ash. A single pidgeot could tear a field of them to pieces with a miniature cyclone. A single muk could bury waves of them in poison.

But no pokemon is immune to fatigue, and all the type advantage in the world won’t stop sheer, overwhelming numbers.

“Ember! Ember! Ember!”

The fire flicks out, onetwothree, and a trio of paras crackle and burn. Behind them another six advance, shooting out yellow and green and blue spores that get swept back by the wings of Ryback’s fearow. It dives a second later, piercing and shredding the dome of a parasect before flying up in a corkscrew to shed the mushroom and insect gore covering its feathers.

Red can’t think of how long they’ve been fighting anymore, or how much longer until the Rangers come. His entire world is the next attack, and then the next, and the next. The radio keeps squawking orders and warnings and calls for help, but Red barely pays attention to it anymore. He feels like he’s in a cartoon, trying to plug a wall that keeps sprouting new leaks.

Red’s nidoran is already exhausted, and his poisonous spurs take out another handful of the paras before he accumulates too many injuries for Red to heal with quick sprays of potion. Spinarak takes his place and holds up better, until a parasect rushes forward and claws off two of its forelegs. Red withdraws it before the giant claws can close around its head, and an ember by Charmander swiftly engulfs the parasect. Its flaming corpse does little to deter the red and orange swarm.

The red and orange swarm that extends for two hundred meters in front of them.

Could use a beedrill about now, wouldn’t you say?

Shut up, Past Red.

Leaf’s beedrill might help take out another dozen or two, but the real battle will be decided by their special attackers. No matter how good a physical fighter is one-on-one, certain special attacks can take out whole swathes of the foe again and again from a safe distance. Between choosing his targets, Red catches glimpses of them at work. A weezing floats above the swarm to his left, blanketing the bugs below in clouds of noxious gas. To the right, a magmar glows red-hot and wades through the paras in a shimmering cloud of superheated air that crisps anything near it.

Red and Ryback are holding the line between the two, along with a geologist named Pira. Her only supereffective pokemon is a numel who spits small showers of embers out of its hump every few seconds to help cover them. Red feels a burst of relief every time the fiery rain comes down to buy him and Charmander some more breathing room.

Red doesn’t see the weezing go down or get withdrawn, but he begins to notice the surge in enemies a few seconds before Ryback calls out “Big group coming on the left!”

Red and Pira pivot and redirect their pokemon to get ready for the twenty or so paras and three parasect that trundle toward them. Too many. Way too many. He shoves down his anxiety and tries to think of solutions. He already tried using his pokedex to imitate paras’ predators, but the fungi are driving them beyond reasonable fears, which is why they march to their fiery, poisonous doom by the dozens. We need a force amplifier.

“I’m going to concentrate on the parasect,” Ryback says. “We need something-Drill Peck!-we need something else to help hold the paras off!”

Pira hesitates. “I’ve got a lickitung, but I’d rather not use him for fodder unless we don’t have another choice.”

Dammit. Guess it’s time. “I’ve got a spearow, but it’s freshly caught. Ember! I don’t know how much it will help-”

“We need whatever we can get!”

He unclips its ball. “Go, Spearow!”

The bird appears and screeches at the sight of all the swiftly approaching paras, though whether in fear or hunger Red doesn’t know. “Peck!”

Spearow dives at the paras along the side of the horde, sharp beak dismembering pincers and legs before it flutters back out of their reach. Red sees Ryback’s fearow divebomb two of the parasect and make short work of them, but the third holds it off for a bit with a cloud of stunspores that it has to circle around to blow away.

Charmander and the numel burn another handful of paras in the next few seconds, but the rest just keep coming. “Slow retreat,” Ryback says. “Keep falling back until this bunch is done.”

Red begins stepping backward, and calls Charmander to follow him as he tries to keep an eye on his spearow at the same time. The bird is having trouble scoring any killing blows now that the paras know it’s around, and Red sees it get engulfed in a cloud of poison powder while it’s distracted.

“Spearow, Quick Attack!” Red begins counting in his head. The paras’s poison would kill a pokemon like spearow after about sixty seconds. He wants to withdraw it, but almost twenty paras are still coming, and the fearow has only just managed to take down the last parasect. 4, 5, 6…

“Back, farther,” Ryback says, and Red mirrors his backward movements.

“Charmander, back!” The fire lizard is breathing hard, and Red can see the flame on his tail burning low. 11, 12… He won’t last much longer… 13… force amplifier, something to make a bigger flame… 15, 16…

Another burst of fire from Pira’s numel brings down a second handful, but the paras keep coming, and now they’re starting to spread to the sides, outside of their reach. “We’re breaking formation,” Ryback says. 21, 22, 23. “We need to hold them here.” He quickly commands his fearow to pick off the bugs that are trying to get past them, leaving charmander, spearow and numel with the rest. 32, 33, 34-

“Shit!” Red says as another cloud of spores is ejected toward them, and jumps to the side. “Ember!” He lost count, and starts again at 40 just in case. We have nothing to burn, nothing to use to spread fire… In his distraction, he sees that Spearow has abandoned the hit and run maneuvers to try and peck the paras again, and feels a surge of fear. “Spearow, Quick Att-”

He sees it happen, a burst of blue spores that engulfs the bird’s head. “No!” Red yells, ball extended. “Spearow return!”

The beam misses as his pokemon falls into the swarm of paras, who quickly converge on the bird.

No, no! “Ember, Charmander, Ember, Ember!”

The globs of fire bring down another two paras, but there are a dozen left, and Red watches in horror as blood and feathers spray into the air.

Red reclips spearow’s ball, chest burning as he fights back the urge to run forward and rescue his pokemon. It’s not fair, he was just going to withdraw him, he-

“They’re still coming!” Ryback says as the paras get within ten feet. “If you’ve got anything else, we need them now!”

“Go, Orval!” Pira says, and her lickitung appears. “Supersonic!” The parasect at the front become confused by the beam of shrill noise, allowing Ryback’s fearow to swoop down and rake them to pieces in a series of rapid dives. “Focus on defensive fighting, we just need to buy time!”

“Go, Rattata,” Red says, biting back bitter words. If you brought your lickitung out earlier my pokemon might still be alive. “Quick Attack!”

The paras keep driving themselves forward over the bodies of their fallen kindred, driven by the mushrooms’ imperative to spread their spores. With the five pokemon combined, however, they die as quickly as they scuttle forward, bursts of flame and wind providing cover for Red’s rattata to distract the confused front lines. Red goes from tired to exhausted, but still the battle goes on until his voice grows hoarse and his fingers fumble with potion bottles.

“Ranger ETA is five minutes!” the radio says. “Hold the line as best you can!”

“Shit,” Red croaks. “It’s only been ten minutes?”

“I know,” Ryback pants. “Drill Peck! Feels like hours.”

“Should I call my friends?”

“Not yet. They have their own job to do.”

Red opens his mouth to argue, then closes it. There’s no time, and Ryback is the senior trainer around. “Pira, my rattata needs a potion.”

“Okay, do it. Orval, Slam!” The lickitung waddles forward and smashes its tail down on one of the paras. “Defense Curl!”

“Rattata, back!” Red kneels down as his pokemon returns to him, trembling with adrenaline and pain. Red’s chest hurts as he sprays her wounds. “You’re doing great,” Red whispers as he strokes her head. She nuzzles Red’s fingers with her whiskers, causing his throat to tighten. “Just k-keep moving girl, it’ll be over soon…” He wants to give her more time to rest, doesn’t want to send her back at all, but the lickitung is already being overwhelmed. “Go! Quick Attack!”

Red gets to his feet and hangs the potion bottle on his belt before realizing it’s empty and tossing it aside. His eyes roam the swarm of paras as he digs a new one out of his bag, new fear settling into him as he sees the scuttling mass of insects seems untouched, despite what must be hundreds of charred and broken bodies they trample underfoot.

“We’re not going to be able to hold out another five minutes,” Pira says, echoing Red’s thoughts. “Orval, Supersonic! Even if we do, there’s no guarantee the Rangers will get to our area in time.”

“We can’t spare anyone to go for help,” Ryback says. “If we have to run, we run, but not while our pokemon can still fight. Shara, Drill Peck!”

Red tries to think of his remaining resources. He can use a smokescreen from charmander, but it won’t hamper the paras, who are used to travelling in the pitch black of the mountain. His pichu’s electricity would barely hurt them, and his caterpie could maybe trip up one of them. And… that’s it. If there’s something else he could be doing, he’s too distracted to think of it.

If the Rangers don’t arrive soon, we’re screwed.

“Charmander, Ember! Rattata, Quick Attack!”

The minutes drag on, Charmander’s embers becoming smaller and smaller, Rattata moving slower with every strike. Soon a paras survives an ember, and Red notices that Charmander’s tailflame is a slender flicker. “I have to withdraw my charmander,” Red says, coughing at the dryness in his throat. “He’s spent.”

“Do you have any ether?” Pira asks.

“No.”

“Here.” She hands him a bottle, and Red drops to his knees, spraying the rare stimulant into Charmander’s mouth. A few seconds later the lizard’s eyes widen, and his tailflame flares back to near full size.

He hands it back. “Thanks.”

“Should buy us another few minutes.” She waits for her numel to send another salvo of fiery death into the paras’ ranks before she gives it some.

“Charmander, Ember! Ryback, even with the ether our pokemon are fading fast. I’m going to call my friends.”

Ryback looks torn. “Alright, let them kn-”

“Rangers on site, approaching east side! Everyone begin rotating to help those on the west!

“Nevermind!” Ryback says with a grin. “We’re on the home stretch. Just a little longer!”

Red still feels like they can use the help, but he has to admit that knowing the cavalry’s on the way is invigorating. A few seconds later he can see the effect of the new arrivals as more trainers begin to hem in the paras at their sides. Soon they can begin advancing, and do so, pushing the waves of paras forward. A rapidash and venomoth spew flamethrowers and sludge bombs to their left, while on their right a quilava sends out exploding bursts of fire into the swarm and a dodrio dashes back and forth along the front lines, each head skewering a different bug every second.

Red’s fear and anxiety slowly fades as they push forward and reclaim lost ground, though the smell and feel of all the dead paras that crunch underfoot is nauseating. Red tries to avoid them at first, but there’s just too many, and he still has to stay focused on the fight, and instead only watches for patches of poison to step around or fungus to burn.

Between Ryback’s fearow taking out any parasect that trundle too close and Charmander and the numel’s flames crisping the front lines, Red’s rattata is free to strike in quick attacks that get it out of the enemy’s reach before they can retaliate. Red watches his pokemon harry and harass the swarm with pride, until one of the bodies they pass by rears up and stabs her through the torso with both claws.

Red whips her ball up and tries to get a lock on his rattata as she thrashes weakly against her assailant. He watches with his heart in his throat as her movements slow, and the dying paras finally crawls off her. “Rattata, return!” Red cries out, withdrawing her into her ball. “Charmander, Ember!” Please, it was only a few seconds, please, be okay, Red thinks as he scrambles for his pokedex for a moment, then stops and reclips her ball to his belt. He forces himself to focus on the battle. It won’t change if I know now or five minutes from now. Focus. Worry fills Red’s stomach with acid, but he’ll be damned if he lets his distraction cost him another pokemon.

The circle of trainers around the swarm grows tighter, and they advance farther toward the collapsed dig site. Paras and parasect are still pouring out of it, until the whole battlefield is stunned by an echoing roar.

A charizard dips out of the sky, its scales gleaming in the sun like living flames. Its wings beat the air in claps of thunder before it soars down over the epicenter and bathes it in fire. Again and again the trainer on its back strafes the battlefield, pouring hot death into the hole the paras are crawling out of until the fungus in the tunnel catches fire. Soon after a pillar of black smoke begins to rise, and the waves of bugs crawling out of the hole abruptly stops. Red watches in awe, and Charmander makes a low crooning noise as it tracks the charizard’s flight with wide eyes.

The battle is quickly over after that, and Red finds a relatively clean boulder to sit on as the dozens of site workers and nearby trainers who came to help coordinate clean up and triage. Ryback finds him there, staring down at Rattata’s ball, pokedex sitting on the rock beside him.

“Did it make it?”

Red shakes his head, not looking up. The first pokemon he ever caught, dead because a stupid bug was driven into a suicidal frenzy by a fungal parasite.

“I’m sorry. I wanted to say, you did good. We couldn’t have done it without you and your pokemon.”

“Thanks,” Red whispers, and clears his throat. He wants to take his mask off, but the stench would be even worse then.

“Want to head back to your friends, make sure they’re alright? Or do you need a minute?”

Red shakes his head again and hops off the boulder as he pockets his dex and reclips Rattata’s ball. He’ll release and bury her later. He wishes he could do the same for his spearow, but he doesn’t have the stomach to search for his remains, if there even are any.

As they walk, Red lets memories take him. Training with his rattata, scouring Viridian for wild pokemon with her, finding his spinarak and catching it, playing with her and Charmander in the park at Pewter. Why had he never named her? Even now, Red can’t think of one. It doesn’t feel right, that she’ll forever just be “Rattata” to him.

He thinks of the nest she was part of when he caught her, how she might have had children. Was it worth catching her, bringing her north all this way, only to die on a mountain far from her home? Red looks around at the blighted mountainside, and spots a pair of trainers sitting beside a third who’s lying still, eyes closed. Red takes his hat off and runs his fingers through his sweaty hair, enjoying the breeze and happy to be alive.


The first thing Leaf does after Wigglytuff starts singing is take out a potion and spray Maturin’s chest, where the sandslash’s claws scored deep wounds. Then she takes another pair of plugs out and stuffs them in Blue’s ears. Her heart races as she waits for him to wake up, gaze never leaving the sandslash or its master. The thief.

No, not just a thief. He attacked them. He actually sent his pokemon to attack them.

Renegade.

The thought chills her to her bone. Encountering Renegades, that’s the stuff trainers do in comics and movies. Is he insane? He must be, to doom himself over some fossils, no matter how valuable.

Of course, Blue’s squirtle did attack his abra first… but that was clearly a warning shot. Wasn’t it? Oh gods, did they attack an innocent trainer unprovoked? Are they going to get branded?

But no, he used a graveler to tear up the building, maybe even knew they were on the other side. He summoned a sandslash to attack them. He was prepared, could have had it tear up the rest of the house, passed the whole thing off as natural.

Leaf walks over to her wigglytuff and strokes its lush fur to calm herself a little. The feel of it is truly incredible, like trailing her fingers through a warm cloud, and her nerves are soothed almost immediately. Or maybe it’s the song, warped and heavily muted, but still audible at this range, and lovely. She doesn’t know how loud it has to be to knock her out, but she’s glad she tested whether the plugs would work up close.

Blue stirs in her peripheral, and she moves back over to him just as he jerks awake, eyes wide. It takes a moment for his face to clear, and when it does his expression hardens. He gets to his feet and checks Maturin, then flashes her a thumbs up and withdraws his pokemon. He takes his phone out and begins typing into it, and it takes Leaf a moment to realize that he’s marking their location with a Renegade flag. It might not even be noticed right away, with the Tier 1 still ongoing, but-

Leaf’s eyes widen. She forgot about that. How far is Wigglytuff’s song going? It’s probably not nearly as far since they’re most of the way inside a building, but it still could be endangering people.

She has to end it.

Leaf goes over to the Renegade and carefully undoes his belt, then empties his pockets. She carries all his things over to the cabinet and puts them on it, then returns his sandslash to its ball. What else can she do to secure him? Once caught, pokemon are intrinsically taught not to attack people through the very first, most basic training programs, so she can’t order her bulbasaur to wrap him in vines or put him to sleep. She can have him emit some sleep powder and then just sprinkle some into the man’s nose, but they’re much less predictable than the continued effect of Wigglytuff’s singing, unless she’s willing to just keep scooping more over him, which might be dangerous.

Leaf nearly leaps out of her skin when Blue taps her shoulder, and he puts his palms up in apology. She waves it off, cheeks flushed as she takes a deep breath. Blue shows her his phone, which has the message “What are you doing?” typed on its notepad app.

She brings up her own. “Gotta stop the song, others at risk. Wanna secure him first.”

Blue scratches his neck, then types, “Any of these doors got locks?”

They check, and only the outhouse style bathroom does. “Flimsy,” Blue types with a frown.

“Maybe stick them both in there and close the door? Limit sound exposure outside.”

Blue nods, and they work together to drag and shove the Renegade’s body into the bathroom. Leaf can see it would be a tight fit to get Wigglytuff into it too, but thankfully the pokemon’s body is extremely malleable, and she fits comfortably in the remaining space. She continues to cheerfully sing as Leaf strokes her head, then closes the door.

The sound drops to nearly nothing. “I’ll test,” Blue says, and unplugs an ear before she can stop him. His eyes promptly roll up in his head, and she catches him before he can crumple to the ground.

Leaf sighs and lowers him the rest of the way, then finds the plug he dropped and puts it back in.

When he wakes up, she leads him all the way outside, where he tries again with some trepidation. He soon relaxes, and flashes a thumbs up.

Leaf unplugs too, first one ear, then the next. She can still hear the song, but about as muted as it was while she was standing next to it with the plugs. “Okay, do a quick search to make sure no one around us got knocked out while in a fight. I’ll stay and make sure she keeps singing.”

“Got it.”

Leaf leans against an undamaged part of the building and looks out over the mountainside. Her pulse is finally returning to something approaching normal, but she still feels jittery. Until someone else shows up and the Renegade is physically confined, it feels like anything can happen, and since things are currently stable, “anything” would likely be bad. She keeps replugging her ears and poking her head into the building to make sure the bathroom door is closed. After the third time she checks she goes inside and brings all his stuff out with her.

When she unplugs her ears she hears a roar, and turns to see a charizard flying over the battlefield. It’s awe inspiring enough to make her forget what’s going on for a moment, but by the time it finishes its fiery strafing runs she realizes that Blue’s still not around.

She texts him and waits, nerves ratcheting back up again. She goes through the building to the other side to check if he’s in that direction when her phone buzzes, and she sees that he’s on his way back “with help.”

Relief makes her legs buckle, and she sits down for a minute before reminding herself that this would be the exact time in a movie for the villain to escape, and maybe kill his jailer on the way. She puts her earplugs back in and stays in the building until Blue arrives with two ACE trainers and one of the paleontologists, who wait outside.

“They know what’s up,” Blue says through text. “Return her and they’ll hold him until a Ranger arrives.”

“They have rope?”

“Better.”

Leaf is curious, but she complies and waits outside while they carry the man out. It becomes clear once an ACE brings out a Mr. Mime. The rare psychic pokemon creates a telekinetic barrier around the man, trapping him once he wakes. As she’s asked to corroborate Blue’s story, Red and Ryback arrive, and they hear the whole thing. Leaf feels herself getting anxious again as Blue recounts the part where he fired on the abra first. Who are they going to believe, two kids or one of their coworkers?

Ryback and the other paleontologist look stunned. “I just can’t believe Yuuta would do something like that. He’s been working with us for over a year…”

Red looks tired, maybe worse than tired, but his voice is steady when he says, “That’s what makes Renegades so scary, isn’t it? They don’t walk around with a big red R on their shirt. Anyone could be one.”

“Not making a great case for us,” Blue growls, elbowing him.

“Yuuta wasn’t the most friendly sort,” Ryack admits. “He was always helpful, but never got close to anyone.”

“Careful,” Red says. “It’s been shown in studies that it’s easier to remember negative things about someone and forget positives when primed to think badly of them.”

“Whose side are you on?” Blue demands.

Red opens his mouth, then closes it and rubs his eyes. “Sorry, I was just…”

“It’s okay,” ACE Trainer Nora says. “We’re pretty sure the grandchildren of Professor Oak and Juniper didn’t suddenly decide to become Renegades a few weeks into their journeys.”

“Just in case though, you’re both prepared to make a deposition to the Rangers?” asks Jabari, the other ACE. Leaf gets the impression the question is rhetorical.

They both nod. “I know this is just our word against his, but we can at least prove that he tried to steal the fossils,” Leaf says.

“If you can find anywhere an abra teleported into without its trainer, that’ll corroborate that part,” Red suggests.

“And just test his pokemon,” Blue says. “If he has any that have been trained to attack people-”

“Yes, I’m sure the Rangers have seen all the same crime shows,” Nora says with a smile.

“What was his job here?” Leaf asks.

“He was a geologist,” Ryback says. “He… actually, he…”

“What is it?”

“Let me guess,” Red says. “He ran the equipment that monitored seismic activity.”

Ryback nods with a sigh. “I thought it was strange that we didn’t get any warnings about pokemon tunneling under us. I suppose he was ready for something like this.”

Or worse… what if he planned for it? Leaf tries to dismiss the thought: who could plan for a rampage? They would have to set it off themselves, or work with others to do so. The thought is insane… but she keeps thinking of the man’s face, his calm, his preparation.

“Well, everyone get comfortable while we wait for the Rangers,” Paul says as he leans against the building with his arms crossed. “Personally, I’m hoping Mr. Mori wakes up before they get here. I’d like to ask him a few questions myself.”


…as always, we must ask ourselves what the point of our criminal justice system is, and what we wish to optimize it for. Safety? Reform? Punishment? These three values can often result in very different outcomes.

Which is why the case of how the state treats Renegades so often inflames public policy debates. It is taken for granted that, while many crimes are heinous beyond words, for this crime, and this crime only, it is justified that we brand a man or woman irredeemable, and with all of society’s collective might, from Gym Leaders to police to Rangers, we hound them to their dying breath, as we would a rogue pokemon. Indeed, it is often argued that once committed to such acts, the Renegade ceases to be human, and thus is no longer treated as such.

In a world where our very survival as a species depends on us capturing and training pokemon not to hurt humans, but to defend them, we hold the act of training them to kill us so profane that anyone who would violate that cornerstone of human society is utterly ejected from it. So hated is the Renegade, so feared by their region, so dangerous in the common mind, that we have accepted the thought of using their own crimes against them. We empower Hunters to mimic their methodology, to commit their same profanity, in order to keep us safe.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. By every account, Renegades are a vicious breed, driven to unconscionable extremes that set them apart from society’s core values, often simply to enrich themselves. Or, in perhaps the most sympathetic of examples, driven so mad with grief or rage that they throw their lives away to get revenge for a loved one murdered by more mundane means. In any situation, they are regarded as people who are beyond reason.

But consider this: in the Time of Conflict, there was once a wealthy province where petty crime ran rampant. There was a great divide between the rich and poor, and many hungry and homeless citizens would choose to steal a loaf of bread rather than starve. The shogun decreed that a policy of leniency had bred thieves, and changed the punishment for thievery from imprisonment to death.

The crime of thievery did indeed go down by some measure… but the crimes of assault and murder rose to far outstrip what was lost. For many thieves that spied a witness or faced a lawman, it was often a simple choice to fight to their last breath, to kill, when they knew the only other outcome was to be killed themselves.

-Excerpt from the blog Rationally Thinking, by Giovanni Sakaki, Sept 4th, 1505.

Scaling Your Campaign, Tier 3

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamers

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Tier 3: Worldwide Story

The previous post explored the unique themes a Tier 2 story can have, and the opportunities and challenges it can present: Tier 2 adds a wider scope to player choices and interactions in regards to consequences, potential allies, and symptomatic effects.  The third tier broadens all those themes, but also adds the potential of its own unique element: Change, with a capital C.

A Tier 3 story involves a threat or challenge not just to the players, not just to the town or city or country around them, but to their whole world. Keep in http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/storage/when-change-is-hard.jpg?__SQUARESPACE_CACHEVERSION=1314973950229mind that this is a flexible concept: in a science-fiction adventure, a Tier 2 story may well be global, as the planet is treated as the “locality,” while a Tier 3 story would be interplanetary, or even intergalactic, to encompass that everything is affected. A Tier 3 story means that everything the characters once knew to be normal or thought were eternal are now up in the air.  The old rules no longer apply, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Almost all stories are about change in some way or the other, especially regarding the protagonists. But when we speak about change being central to a Tier 3 story, we aren’t just talking about the scale or breadth of the change, as some result of the story’s conclusion.  What’s unique to Tier 3 are changes that occur all around the players, changes that are an integral part of the story itself, moment to moment.  It’s Change as an ambiance.

The best Tier 3 stories are absolutely saturated with a mood of imminent and drastic Change.  Whether it’s a direct result of the major conflict or a symptom, it should be evident in every chapter.  Fear, uncertainty, and risk should be reflected in setting and NPCs… as well as, ultimately, hope.  In a classic fantasy saga, perhaps races that have historically done nothing but fight and hate each other are beginning to set aside ancient grudges for the first time ever, in order to fight the rising primordial evil. In a cyber-steam-punk tale, perhaps the barriers between the classes are starting to break down as some mechanical rebellion forces everyone to revert to pre-industrialized technologies and skills.  In a modern supernatural  story, perhaps some Big Bad is taking actions so huge that the mortal/mundane world can’t help but notice, and thus the masquerade dividing them and the various supernatural communities is crumbling: for the first time since the Age of Enlightenment, humanity as a whole is becoming truly aware of the “monsters” that have lived hidden among them all this time.

These changes may be ultimately good, bad, or both.  But a conflict on a scale and magnitude so big that it metaphorically shatters the planet should not leave everything as it was before, once all the pieces have been picked up.  When the hobbits return home, they should find the Shire, if not burning, at least militarized and vigilant against a world that trembled on the brink of eternal darkness.

And whether these changes are desirable or not is ample fuel for side plots in the story.  Now that the main plot is so massive, smaller story elements have plenty of room to grow and challenge the Player Characters.  Xenophobic elements of each race that refuse to ally with the others, despite the threat.  Technophiles that believe the mechanical rebellion is the natural course of things, and side against humanity.    Members of the supernatural community that believe they will be wiped out or worse without the masquerade to protect them, and fight violently to remain a secret.

These are all side challenges to the main struggle that add depth and richness to the more linear “the world is in trouble, save it” narrative that is far too easy to fall into in a Tier 3 story.  And these challenges need not be exclusively NPC driven: if any of the players feel their characters end up on different sides of whether the changes are positive or negative, they should feel free to express that.  If it starts to really split the group’s goals and loyalties, you’ve got a really interesting campaign on your hands…

(Note: As mentioned in Tier 1, the scope of the danger is not ultimately what determines the Tier of a story.  It’s perfectly possible to write a story in which the threats to the locality or planet are completely hidden from the rest of the world, and there are no consequences or collateral damage to initiate changes.  These are essentially dressed up Tier 1 stories, where the focus is still entirely on the heroes, and the only changes are personal ones. Ultimately, a story’s Tier is about range of elements and scope that can occur in it, not how big the stakes are.)

Transitioning to a Tier 3 Story:

Michael’s story is advancing fairly well.  First he presented a personal challenge to his players, beginning the story at Tier 1 and letting them get used to their characters and learn about them on an intimately scaled story.  Then, as the Cassy and Don looked into their son Jacob’s death and Jeff and Mary investigated his sister Lara’ s disappearance, they learned that both events are not just connected, but similar to tragedies that dozens of other families have experienced, transitioning the story to Tier 2. 

With some detective work and the police department’s resources, along with a little breaking-and-entering, they interrogate a scientist from Lara’s biotech company.  They gain access to her computer and files, and learn that the biotech company Lara worked for has perfected a method of cloning that allows the clone to grow very quickly in a controlled environment, but quickly sicken and die outside it.

The symptoms of the clones’ breakdown matched the mysterious “illness” Jacob had died from.  Cassy and Don are suddenly hopeful that their real son is in fact alive, though they fear what purpose he was abducted for.   The group assumes that Lara must have discovered Jacob was being targeted, and set out to warn Cassy and Don.  Jeff is afraid that his sister was killed to prevent her from doing so.

The heroes confer and decide to take what they know public.  After a coordinated effort and planning, they release the information simultaneously with the other parents through the network Cassy and Don set up of the other affected parents, along with Jeff’s news sources.  The information spreads too quickly  and too widely to be suppressed, and soon more and more voices are heard, not just in the United States, but around the world, demanding an explanation.  Theories begin to fly as to what the true purpose of these abductions and clones are, and who’s ultimately behind them.

Soon whistle-blowers begin coming out, and the truth is made known:

A gene has been identified that allows humans, with some tweaking, to develop “super powered” abilities.  The government has been identifying children with the gene and has abducted and replaced them in order to study, develop, and train the use of their abilities in defense of the earth against extraterrestrial beings that are hidden among us.

The story has now entered Tier 3.

So, adding in flash clones, superpowers, and aliens might drastically shift things in too many directions at once for some players. Any one of those revelations would be enough to change the world on their own. What happens next can go a dozen different ways.

But without a doubt, the events the heroes have set in motion will have worldwide implications, and consequences.  Panic and riots.  Distrust and paranoia.  The knowledge that we’re not alone in the universe.  The reality of superhumans. The moral applications of clones. Questions of ends justifying the means.

Of course, if Michael had wanted, he could have simply started the campaign at Tier 3.  Told the players that it was a sci-fi story and covered everything setting up the plot in narration. But think of what the players would have missed out on.

Even if the players now want or need to take the roles of superpowered abductees, for example, he could still have the players switch characters at this point in the story… but the unique perspective of bringing about and revealing the monumental change, from the ground level, would have been lost, and the consequences of the reveal on society would have felt much less personal and impacting.

Each tier offers unique perspectives and focuses the lens of those experiencing it on different aspects of a truly great campaign.  While not all stories need go through each tier, the next time you develop a campaign, challenge yourself to try putting it through at least two of them, and think about the transition points, and how you can best convey the changes in the experience to your players before and after them.

Scaling Your Campaign, Tier 2

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamers

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The previous post discussed how to start a wide ranging campaign at Tier 1, at a scale that’s small but personal, and the value that adds to the story and character development.  Eventually the stakes go up, and the story evolves to Tier 2.

Tier 2: Local Story

A Tier 2 story is about events that affect a locality.  They’re not quite big enough to be visible from space, but they’re not just about the protagonists anymore.  Instead the Player Characters are aware that the stakes they’re fighting for are more wide-reaching, and will affect their community/town, city, or region… and more importantly, those around them know it too.

greek riot 1This brings about a number of changes in scope of situations the characters face.  For one thing, the threats and challenges should visibly affect other people around them.  This is an important thing for the storyteller to incorporate: not just remarking on the negative consequences going on, but going into details about the ways they affect the NPCs that populate the world.  A disease that’s filling hospitals to the brim and causing people to die on the streets.  A breakdown of law/order that allows for mass lootings and banditry.  Crushing taxes that cause people to riot at the marketplace and increase the amount of beggars and homeless.

These events don’t just set the mood and tone, they also introduce other potential dangers.  Simply put, the primary threat the heroes face is no longer isolated: it has symptoms that could prove just as dangerous, and the characters should absolutely not be immune to these symptoms.  In the crushing-taxes example above, imagine the heroes stopping at an inn for the night and noticing that it’s virtually empty, and what few people there are look ragged and hungry. On top of that, the innkeeper is eyeing their fine quality equipment and weapons in a wholly unnerving manner.  Perhaps they decide it’s better to camp outdoors for the night instead… and cover the tracks of where they’re going.  If not, one hopes they agree to sleep in shifts so their throats aren’t cut in their sleep.  Or perhaps they decide to give away some extra coin to help the innkeeper through these rough times, and earn some unexpected gratitude and benefit.

global-epidemic-swine-flu-mexico_02How they decide to react to the symptoms is an important part of character development, and helps build the sense of immersion in the events of the story. Sometimes diplomacy isn’t an option: explaining that you are trying to stop the larger problem doesn’t put food in a hungry bandit’s stomach, or stop an infected NPC from seeking aid or succor.

But that doesn’t mean the players are still alone in their journey.  Tier 2 is also the tier where allies should really begin to take a prominent role.  After all, this threat is not just to the players anymore, as it was in Tier 1, and that means they aren’t likely to be the only ones willing to challenge it.

Whether it’s a group of scientists willing to help the players understand an important issue, government agencies trying to minimize collateral damage, or another band of would-be heroes on a similar quest, there should be potential allies for the protagonists to interact with, even if they don’t always have the exact same goals.

Transitioning to a Tier 2 Story:

When last we left Michael, his players—Cassy, Don, Jeff and Mary—had met up and decided to investigate the death of Cassy and Don’s son, Jacob, and the disappearance of Jeff’s sister, Lara.  As they looked into medical research on their son’s mysterious illness and talked to some of Lara’s coworkers, they began to notice patterns that led them to conclude that someone at the company had knowledge of Jacob’s illness… before he became ill.  They suspect that Jeff’s sister knew what was happening, and this is why she’d attempted to warn Cassy and Don.

As sometimes happens, let’s say the players have some trouble putting the clues together, or miss some investigation or intelligence checks. So Michael decides to hit them in the face with a clue: three men beat and mug Jeff on his way home from work, and when he gets home he finds a note warning him to stop investigating his sister’s disappearance slipped under his door.  He and Mary believe the two are related, and begin investigating his assailants in hopes it leads them back to whoever sent him the note.  Meanwhile, Cassy and Don are finding and talking to other parents who lost children under similar circumstances.

Through their combined efforts, they begin to realize that what happened to Jacob is not isolated, and that similar cases have occurred all over the country.  The story has now entered Tier 2.

Don and Cassy form an online group of parents who lost children in the same way, and begin spreading awareness that there is something going on. When they request an autopsy of their son’s body, they’re told that a filing error has led to his body being destroyed or misplaced.  They ask around through their new network, and discover that none of the other parents have been able to have an autopsy done on their children.

Jeff and Mary track down a high positioned scientist at Lara’s company, and try to talk to her.  When she rebuffs their attempts to question her, Mary wants to bring the law in, while Jeff decides to interrogate her personally, convinced that they don’t have time to get through the lawyers and legal issues that will come up.  Against her better judgment, Mary agrees to help Jeff break into the scientist’s house.  Don and Cassy share what they know and agree to help.

With the shift to an awareness that the personal tragedies and challenges are in fact tied to a larger conspiracy, the story shifts to Tier 2.  This particular story maintains a strong focus on the protagonists, but the players recruit the assistance of others who have suffered similarly and have a similar incentive to solve the mystery.

Some of the impetus to make use of a wider range of resources than just themselves will be up to the players, especially if they are particularly adept at thinking creatively.  If they are having trouble deciding on the best course of action however, there are many new “set pieces” or events that the GM can put into motion in order to help the players learn more, and give them a chance to gain allies.

And even though it has expanded to a wider story with more difficult challenges, each character should still be given a chance to take advantage of and develop their various skills and specialties, such as in the  example with  Cassy’s medical knowledge, Don’s people skills, and Mary and Jeff’ s investigative experience.

In the final article we will focus on the unique elements of a Tier 3 story, and how transition a campaign to its endgame.

 

Scaling Your Campaign, Tier 1

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamers

A major step in plotting out a tabletop RPG campaign is determining its scope.  Do you want a small, intimate tale, where the plot revolves around the Player Characters’ personal lives (Tier 1)?  Are they caught up in bigger events that affect the entire city or kingdom around them (Tier 2)?  Or do their actions shake the very foundations of the world, and make an indelible mark on history (Tier 3)?

These classifications can work for more than just designing RPG campaigns, and also help structure novels or TV series. Deciding ahead of time where to start a story, and where to end it, can open up a lot of opportunities when planning it to enhance the reader’s/player’s immersion. This post will review what makes up the structure and themes of a Tier 1 story, and advice on how to craft it.

Tier 1: Personal Story

When many stories start, the player’s characters are rarely big, important people that have a lot of influence.  Whether they’re small-time adventurers or average civilians going about their daily lives, the things that matter to them are usually things that matter to only them.  Their goals are to gain riches or fame, help loved ones, survive some sudden personal threat, etc.

As such, the challenges they face in the beginning tend to be ones that rely on their investment in their personal lives.  This is where the storytelling aspect is so important in immersing players with the characters’ lives: without “anchors” to care about, it’s hard to really feel engaged in the story, rather than interacting with it only as a game.

In Tier 2 or Tier 3 stories, this engagement is often accomplished through simple, but rather bland, means: the impetus to “save the city/country/world” is an effective motivator, but it doesn’t quite tap the full potential an RPG holds.  It’s all well and good to want to save the world, but if you don’t care about your characters, and if your characters don’t care about other things besides saving the world, they can come off as somewhat flat and one-dimensional.

Epic stories often have humble beginnings.

Epic stories often have humble beginnings.

It’s far easier to really grow attached to them and get in their heads if you know them at a more intimate level in the story.  As a storyteller, choosing to start the campaign at Tier 1 helps your players get to know their characters on a small scale first, where everyone has more opportunities to see how their characters react to things, and can get a sense of their personality, desires, and flaws.

Imagine a campaign that culminates in heroes fighting a King who has been secretly using mind-mages to ensorcel people and force them to spy on and kill dissidents in his kingdom: a Tier 2 story. If the story starts with the players already knowing that, the campaign can seem very cut and dry.   But there are ways to make it hit home with the players on a personal level first, by starting it as a Tier 1 story.

Let’s say when the adventure starts, the warrior of the group is merely concerned for his brother, who uncharacteristically snuck into some politician’s house and murdered them.  Believing his brother framed despite the evidence against him, the warrior seeks the true murderer, and along the way meets the other party members who end up uncovering the King’s plot. Later on in their adventure, an assassin jumps them, and during the fight, the group’s magic user recognizes the signs of mental domination on the assassin.  Upon hearing this, the warrior hesitates, both player and character conflicted.

Because the players first learned about these mental manipulators due to the warrior’s brother being targeted by them, and perhaps eventually  imprisoned and executed due to a crime he was forced to commit against his will, there’s a dissonance between how he might normally act.  The warrior may find it hard to strike the assassin down, knowing that they’re probably just as innocent as his brother, and having experienced first-hand the confused anguish the dominated person’s loved ones would feel at their loss.

Of course, this is the kind of thing anyone can infer in such a situation.  But by building the story from the ground up, starting at a Tier 1 plot where the warrior is trying to find the truth about his brother’s actions and clear his name, it’s more visceral and real for the player to stop and think about this assassin as more than a token antagonist, rather than just finding out about it through backstory or narration.

Example: Constructing Your Tier 1 Story

Michael wants to tell a long term Tier 3 story about a global conspiracy where children suspected of harboring supernatural talents are kidnapped and replaced by fast-grown, short-lived clones, the technology for which is not publicly known. Instead of starting the story with the conspiracy revealed to the players however, he decides to start things on a more personal scale and introduce the overarching plot slowly, over three chapters.

So he designs the first chapter of the campaign as a Tier 1 story, revolving it around the player characters’ lives. Two PCs, Cassy and Don, are a divorced lawyer and doctor with partial custody of their son Jacob. Their college friend is an NPC named Lara, who works for a large bio-tech company, and her brother is the third PC, Jeff, a journalist.  A fourth PC is Mary, who’s a detective that is suspicious of the multiple sudden childhood deaths in the state over the past few months.

The players have little idea of what the campaign is about, and within the first few sessions Cassy and Don realize that their son is acting strangely, Jeff’s sister talks to him about a moral dilemma she’s in at work, and Mary investigates the children’s death on her off time and succeeds in getting her boss’s attention over it.

After each player has enough time to start to get a feel for their character, Michael sets the plot off with a bang: Cassy and Don’s child comes down with a sudden sickness, and within a couple days, dies. Shortly afterward, Jeff’s sister goes missing, much to his bewilderment and worry.  She left a cryptic message for Cassy and Don implying that their son’s illness may not be natural, but they had missed it in their panic and grief.  When they discover the message, they go to Jeff, who believes his sister’s disappearance may be related.  Jeff calls his friend in the police force, who directs him to Mary.

Now that the party is grouped, the plot of the campaign becomes clear: to investigate Jacob’s death and Lara’s disappearance.  It’s something extremely important to the players, but is still mostly personal.  They’re ultimately the only ones for whom the stakes are so high (that they’re aware of anyway), and the only ones who they can rely on to help them.

See this picture? It means I get to do whatever I want to you without rolling Morality checks.

See this picture? It means I get to do whatever I want to you without rolling Morality checks.

This is another important aspect of the story’s tier: it limits the scope of outside interference.

In a Tier 1 story, the players are more or less on their own.  While they may be able to recruit others into assisting them for various reasons, or even start to suspect that something bigger might be afoot, the sense of isolation is at the center of the story’s themes.  While it’s possible to have a Tier 2 or even Tier 3 story where your characters are the only ones who know about the dominant threat, it’s generally easier to find allies when other people are being affected by it.

When it’s only your child or your sister or your career or your life at stake, others might lend a hand… but few will be willing to risk much, or go quite as far, as you would.

The next post will discuss the structure of Tier 2 stories, and explore how to transition a Tier 1 campaign into a Tier 2 one.