Case Study: My Homebrew PbtA Campaign Called Catacombatan

Our catchphrase: Play to find out the mysteries of death!

@Paul_T asked me these:

That sounds interesting! I’d encourage you to start a new thread about Catacombatan, and maybe share some of your design.

The lore is interesting: what knowledge about thanatology are you drawing on?

However, mostly I’m curious how you’re using PbtA design in a mystery context, and what the GM’s tools and techniques are.
This topic touches upon a few fresh and old treads:
[Apocalypse world] players having trouble knowing what to do.
Is “play to find out” incompatible with certain genres?
Progressive PbtA elements
How to make ?epic? fantasy campagins?


  • edited May 2019
    1. 'Mystery'

    First you have to know that by 'mysteries of death' I mean not a single, objectively solvable case as in 'murder mystery' but the Greatest Unknown which you can explore on a subjective path. So:
    'Something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.'
    'The secret rites of pagan religion to which only initiates are admitted.'
    Definitely yes
    'A novel, play, or film dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.'
    Not really, maybe as a bit of spice?
  • edited May 2019
    2. GMing

    I use a few standard MC principles and moves. The two most important ones (pulled from an SG thread about epicness):
    Test their convictions!
    Everything always intensifies or becomes complicated!

    The central concept (the Order of Catacombatan) turned out to be more like a link between PCs than the focus of our play. I think 2/3 of our sessions were about the personal life of PCs and not about their organization. Maybe its because there is only one central shared front (Catacombatan) but 3 different outward front (1/PC).

    But really, the campaign is also just a good excuse to personally ponder over what is death and how intimate we can get with it.
  • 3. Characters

    The PCs consist of themes (as in The City of Mist), called 'identities' and 'spiritualities' which are functioning as huge flags for the GM.

    Every identity has a motto or goal (expressed with an exclamation mark), and every spirituality an enigma or dilemma (expressed with a question mark) which are defined and often redefined by players.

    You always have 6 level of themes. If all your themes becomes spiritualities then you depart, transcend or becomes something inhuman.

    An example starting character from the campaign:
    Warrior 3 (identity: 'We came to win!')
    Aristocrat 1 (identity: Using my fathers name is glory, shaming it brings death upon me!)
    Catacombatan order 1 (identity: I want to know the guardian order better!)
    Dream 1 (spirituality: Does my life influences my dreams or the other way?)
  • 4. Prepping & Setting

    By looking at the PCs themes I know what kind of prep should I do. For both theme types I try to list challenges and opportunities, basically 'bandoliers of bangs'

    As with IRL ones, the settings mysteries usually doesnt have an endpoint, you cannot reach their bottom. There are layers to the truths. Think Call of Cthulhu, but with a less pessimistic tone. The knowledge is often esoteric, circular or synthetic.

    The setting was not a true PbtA blank state, it did not originate from provocative questions.

    I used a Hungarian setting called Ynev as a base because everyone knows it in Hungary.
    I amplified a few elements in it, those which were famously banned from AD&D 2E (assassins, half orcs, demons, poisons, etc). I know its less edgy now but I aimed for a nostalgic 'visceral AD&D feel'. Also in Ynevs greatest city Erion there is a huge necropolis which is cool!

    Actually the whole campaign idea originated from a fun fact: in the 80s when Hungarians with poor language skills tried to translate AD&D some groups misunderstood the ability Turn Undead and interpreted it as a way for clerics to turn into undead form!!!

    I also work for a monastic religious order and somehow wanted to incorporate it.

    So I decided that the campaign will be about a mysterious monastic order who are overseeing the Necropolis, guarding the living from the dead, following various spiritual paths (the 'Faces of Death') and who are also able to turn undead :D Thus the Order of Catacombatan was borne!

    So the setting is set but it's history is still very much flexible with huge holes filled out when needed.

    I use two methods for that: turning questions back to players (usually about identities), and turning to my knowledge of thanatology for inspiration to convey meaning (usually about spiritualities).

    My knowledge of thanatology comes from various sources. Death always fascinated me. I studied a lot about philosophy and world religions, once I was very into the psychology of death, and lately I read a few publications about the historical metaphors and interpretations of death when I studied mental health (courses about grief, mourning, hospice, etc.)
  • edited May 2019
    6. Mysteries that we have found out by playing:

    An example chain of deeper and deeper understanding of an issue
    - The outer wall of the Necropolis was built in the 4th Era ('The Age of Ignorance'). Why so late? (No answer yet)
    - It is also the time when humanity started to use coffins. Maybe as a way to imprison undeads?
    - The idea that death is a departure originated from this era (phrases like 'to be gone' or 'depart this life' were neologisms then)
    - Actually the fist use of the term 'Gate of Death' comes from this era but it is officially opened in the 2nd Era ('The Age of Resurrection'). How is that?
    - Maybe the whole understanding of 'death as space' is a historically new interpretation! But then what the hell The Gate of Death really is?
    - Lets look at the 3rd Era (The Golden Age Death). It was filled with personifications of death (Reaper, Dark Angel, Skull)! Why?
    - It was because back then the area was full of undead (dans macabres, Headless Horsemen). The deads were living -> Death is living?
    - Is the Gate of Death more like a creature or a 'thing'? Can we go deeper than this?

    A sort of 'murder mystery' parallel to the last one
    - Were is the guy who got lost in the Necropolis? In the core doing some crazy blood magick shit!
    - Why did he do that? He is a Seal Breaker!
    - Who are the Seal Breakers? They are a secret society who wants to break the seven seals on The Gate of Death
    - How do they want to do that? By blood magick.
    - But we protect the gate, right? Unfortunately their members infiltrated the Catacombatan our organization...
    - But why there is no investigation about their incursion? Maybe there is one but its secret. or maybe they are already in the top of our organization!

    Also, an interconnected enigma:
    - But man, if The Gate of Death is maybe not even a gate, then maybe they know more about its nature than us? Maybe, just maybe we are the 'bad guys'?

    Finally, an example mystery about a PCs spirituality
    - Does my life influences my dreams or the other way? Its definitely the other way around!
    - What is this repeating motif in my dreams (a sword smashed into a skull)? The symbol of the Order of Catacombatan
    - Who is this stranger in my dreams? Its definitely not me and not someone that I know of. (An abandoned enigma)
    - What is dream to death? They are sisters! (Hypnos & Thanatos)
    - Can I dream awaken? Sometimes, yes!
    - Why do I dream that I am that stranger man? We are connected somehow
  • Very interesting stuff!

    I like your approach to developing mysteries and making the game about discovery.

    How do these strings of questions come about, in practice? Where do they originate? How much is you making it up as you go along vs. having some kind of mystery planned and assembled ahead of time?
  • The

    How do these strings of questions come about, in practice? Where do they originate? How much is you making it up as you go along vs. having some kind of mystery planned and assembled ahead of time?
    They originate from the PCs themes. At a lull of play the players can redifine their dilemmas, enigmas, mottoes and goals. As we dont play day by day and skip a lot forward it often happens.

    I mostly make the answers up based on my outline. The settings history vaguely mirrors the history of attitude toward death in Europe.

    An example: up until the current session I had no idea who l the Sealbreakers are and what they really want. I still dont have the answers but I came up with stakes which will answer it for us in play.
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