Obsidian Free-Form

When I first ran Obsidian, I was mostly testing the mechanics. When the Apophis folks gave me a copy of their urban life supplement, In the Zone, I got interested in playing again and focusing more on the setting. I wound up running a free-form Obsidian one-shot, which turned out very well. Here are the details.

Character Creation

My main concern about Obsidian is that the background and setting are so dense that it's hard for a player to come up with a sympathetic character. There's a lot you have to know in order to envision a character that fits the setting, and the sheer volume of information can overwhelm one's creativity. So I decided to play a trick on my players.

I wrote up a player introduction (see below) for a free-form cyberpunk session, but I didn't tell the players that we were actually playing Obsidian. Key to the setting were terrorist groups, with which the player-characters could be associated. Since the cyberpunk world was similar to our own and sketchy on detail, the players found it easy to invent engaging characters with curious details.

Once the players had defined their characters roughly, I told them that actually we were going to play in the Obsidian setting. I worked with each player to reinterpret the character into the Obsidian setting. Connections to terrorist groups became connections to kults.

All character development was done secretly so that we could make the most out of secret associations to various kults.

Free-Form Mechanics

Learning and using a new set of mechanics usually isn't worthwhile for a one-shot, so we free-formed it. Characters didn't really have stats. Instead, all contests (or dice checks) were made on 1d20, and a player would add +5 if the character had some advantage in the contest, or +10 if they had a big advantage. This system allowed me the joy of uttering such GM lines as, "Everybody make a 'notice that someone's about to toss a grenade in the room' check."

I would have resorted to some sort of hit point or wound system if there'd been a need for it, but all the characters either avoided damage entirely or died, so there was no need.


The basic idea was to let the players mess around in the milieu, then lure them to a nightclub that was secretly run by the kult of the machine, with a techno hellzone hidden on the premises. The whole club would seal itself off, the kultists would attack, circuit zombies would prowl (thanks to inspiration from All Flesh Must Be Eaten), and the climax would be a face-off in the techno hellzone. High body counts are fine for a one-shot, and dead characters can always "come back" as circuit zombies.

As it turned out, the prudent characters were more interested in escaping with their skins than fighting the kultists and zombies. I could have had their exit blocked, with a character realizing that the only way to escape would be to find the techno hellzone and defeat it, but escaping was climax enough.

The last scene of the evening was the characters climbing a ladder in a large ventilation shaft, with countless circuit zombies climbing up behind them. Everyone diced for how fast they were going, but the kicker is that you can't go faster than the character above you. The last character in line is doubly screwed. They're the first ones that the zombies are going to reach, and they can go no faster than the worst-rolling character in the party. As it turned out, the second character in line rolled a 1 for ladder-climbing speed. When the character behind her tried to climb over her, she rolled another 1, and both characters ended up falling to their doom. The rest of the party did well and escaped.

Ad Libs

A lot of the details were ad libbed. Obsidian invites bizarre ad libs the way Over the Edge does, so I was on familiar territory. Here are two of the most successful inventions.

I figure that food in the Zone is all artificial, so its shape, color, and texture are arbitrary. People in the Zone are so divorced from nature that they don't even try to make their food look like natural food. So some NPCs in a bar were eating little blue squirming "noodles," sort of like slugs. The noodles had artificial nerve tissue that made them wriggle when touched, so that they effectively tried to escape as you ate them.

The nightclub where the action took place has a screen for every surface: walls, tabletops, chairs. So the central computer could put up 3D images anywhere and everywhere. While the PCs were hanging out, the walls showed the interior of some massive factory where a firefight was raging.


Most characters had secrets, usually involving connections to one kult or another. That's part of the setting's charm, especially for a one-shot. Partway through the evening, I suggested that we could drop the secrecy and let player knowledge diverge pretty far from PC knowledge. One player wanted to go that route, but the others wanted to keep things under wraps. If I were to do it again, I'd have said that it was up to the players to decide whether to conduct their secret actions in the open and reveal their secret thoughts. It would have been fine for some of the PCs to be "outed" and others not.


The session was extremely successful, with colorful characters, memorable scenes, and a satisfying climax. The Obsidian setting offers a lot of material that players and GMs can riff off of.

Player Intro

This is the intro I emailed to the players.

Friday Night

You might die tomorrow, so you might as well party tonight.

The city is a big, bad place. Terrorists from half a dozen fanatic groups wage an endless, pointless campaign of bombings and massacres. In response, the government has cracked down. The president calls for "extraordinary measures" in combating terrorism, and civilians dread "investigative detention." To make matters worse, the terrorist groups all have political, social, and religious groups affiliated with them. Many civilians have some connection to one terrorist group or another, usually through these technically legal "paraterrorist" organizations.

Throughout all this, civilians are trying to get by and lead "normal" lives. They have jobs, and they have weekends. It's Friday night, and you're going to meet your friends at a club downtown. Who knows where the night will lead?

I'd like you each to show up with some sort of concept, and we'll wing the stats at the table.

To create an outline of your concept, describe five items from the following list in terms of how they relate to your character.

A name, maybe a nick-name, or your real name that none of your friends know.

A job, a career (probably not a family).

A dirty little secret

A hidden weapon

A bad thing that's happened to you recently

A criminal record

Someone that you might just out and out kill if you saw them.

A way to have some chance of surviving having a hand grenade rolled under your chair.

A desperate need for something, such heroin or fame.

A secret link to a terrorist cell (but probably not actual membership).

A fun place to go on a Friday night; the other characters might or might not know it, too.

A striking physical feature, such as a missing eye or wall-to-wall tattoos.

Something really valuable

(5 items total)


What your character can't be:

no legitimate members of the police or armed forces

no wimps who'll fail to face unexpected dangers

no total nut-cases


Character Concepts

Here are three of the characters that my players came up with.

Dr. Moira Jones

> A name, maybe a nick-name, or your real name that none of your friends know.

Dr. Moira Jones - it's been her name for 56 years and it's the only one she wants.

> A job, a career (probably not a family).

The confirmed bachelorette is Director of Special Collections for the city library.

> A hidden weapon

Her glasses house microlasers with which she can blind anyone looking her in the eyes.

> A way to have some chance of surviving having a hand grenade rolled under your chair.

Moira is small, wiry and tough. Old ladies are always harder to kill than you'd think.

> A secret link to a terrorist cell (but probably not actual membership).

M.Y.O.B. uses library, medical, and other confidential records to blackmail and assist with assassinations of cops and politicians whom they consider too eager to open up such records to scrutiny. Moira freely provides records to MYOB on request. The current code phrase is "Treblinka overpass."

Moira became a kultist of the internal, aligned with the House of Sand.


i'd like to be a terrorist named "rainer" from a cell dedicated to undermining all semblance of societal normalcy. rainer is against all norms and mores. his cell, called "NON," is bent on loosing the forces of entropy, so that human beings can get free of the moral and social constraints that hinder the pure flow of unfettered self.

(although, that might result in me fucking up any groove we get going, so i might have to tone this rhetoric down.)

i support myself by stealing. usually from the rich, but hey, i'm not picky.

i'd like the nature of my NON proclivities to be a secret, if that works with your game plan.

my hidden weapon is that i have absolutely no fear of death.

i've got a pearl-handled taser (mercurial, if you like) that i recently stole off a cop, whom i left for dead in an alley.

i don't trust anyone.

oh, and i've got the stubs of antlers protruding from my forehead -- i once had a full rack, when i was a member of an absurdists cult known as GASTROSOD, but they broke off in a brawl. those gastrosods were a bunch of fucking posers anyway.

what are you looking at.

Rainer became a kultist of the chemical.


A job, a career (probably not a family).

A file clerk at a local government-assistance office. Harold has worked there for 18 years, keeping his nose down, identifying with the other outsider drones who--like him--are into music and movies and complaining.

A bad thing that's happened to you recently

The worst thing that's happened to Harold lately is that his experimental acid jazz band--Failing Wendy--got canceled from a sure-thing gig last Friday at the Bitter End. The band might be breaking up. Harold is not the right guy to figure out how to keep it together.

A criminal record

Had a thankfully brief detention--but still got cited--after he went to a protest with his girlfriend June. June is heavily involved with The Injustice Must Stop! (TIMS!), an organization devoted to curbing government civil-rights violations. June is a very focused person. She's broken up with Harold five times in the last seven years.

A way to have some chance of surviving having a hand grenade rolled under your chair.

Before file-clerking, Harold served an unglamorous six-year stint in the army, at an uneventful post in an uneventful place.

A fun place to go on a Friday night; the other characters might or might not know it, too.

The Bitter End. It's kind of crappy, but the booze is cheap. And they've booked Harold's band in the past.


Here are the notes I wrote up for the adventure. It's not much, but each line was just a reminder of ideas that I had worked out in my head. My notes after the fact are in brackets.

A Law comes in, showing citizens the kult blade of a particular kult. The Law questions bystanders about it. [This scene worked great, introducing both the security forces and the kults as threats. The kult blade was the same kind that one of the PCs, Rainer, had hidden in an admonium sheath]

A demon attacks a Law, and the characters come to their aid. [Didn't do it. If the group had been better armed and more eager for a firefight, I'd have used this scene.]

Crime Scene
A friend turns up missing, but his hat is found near a puddle of blood. [Originally this was the kicker for the whole adventure, but I never used it.]

Some club-goers are eating meat. [Since there are no animals left, "meat" means demon flesh. In the adventure, meat served as an illicit substance, and scoring some meat became a minor PC goal.]

You strap in, then take a drug that pushes you to some extreme: hopelessness, homicidal mania, despair, terror, sexual desire. The straps keep you from acting on your random, powerful emotions, and pretty soon they fade, leaving you shaken, as if from an overpowering dream. [This is my variant on a drug found in In the Zone. It showed up as part of a contest where a dozen contestants were all strapped down and drugged. The last one to utter a sound was the winner.]

Techno Hellscape
Nearby communications are interfered with, monitored, sometimes controlled. The room seals off the building and tries to turn everyone in the building into circuit zombies. The players' only hope is to fight toward the Techno Hellscape and destroy it. [Actually, their hope became escaping up a ventilation shaft.]

August 2004