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You’re Doomed. Now What?

We’ve reached the climax of the campaign, with perhaps two or three sessions left to play.

(Oh. Just a second. I don’t think any of my players read this journal, but if they do…go away. Spoilers. Read again in a month. Seriously.)

The background story against which the PCs have been operating is one of a conspiracy of ancient sorcerers. Like the Templars, society believes them to be wiped out in an apocalypse of their own creation. But in good conspiracy thriller fashion, a few surviving sorcerers went underground and have been manipulating events to recreate the great work which went so horribly wrong centuries before: an opening of the doors to the afterlife, which would mean immortality for everyone, but eternal power for the sorcerer-kings who would return to life after centuries of honing their craft in the afterlife. All the pieces are in place, including an invasion of Ajini soldier-sailors that will act as the blood sacrifice to fuel the spell to crack the gates of hell.

My players have worked all of this out, chasing down clues and peeking at documents and laboring mightily to speak briefly with the god of the dead. The PCs know that catastrophe is upon them, though they’re a little unsure as to whether it will take the form of earthquake or volcanic eruption or war or plague, and unsure which is the will of the gods and which is transgressive sorcery.

What they haven’t worked out is that they’re in Atlantis, or a rough approximation thereof, sufficiently close to act as the source of the Atlantis myth. They’re at war with Athens—“Ajini” = “Athenians” in local transliteration—they’ve got a government of five princes in five city-states aided by five shadow ministers; the ruined capital is surrounded by two circular canals with hot and cold running water; the weather and currents appropriate to something just west of the Straits of Gibraltar; local bronze (“orichalcum”) is superior to the Athenian metalcraft…lots of details matching Plato’s account were it doesn’t contradict itself. The islands are about to sink, and the PCs should really be aiming more at survival and escape than stopping the evil conspiracy, and especially getting the two-year-old daughter of two of the PCs to safety. But they don’t know that.

So I dropped a broad out-of-character hint. For a month or two, I’d thought that Dave had worked out the Atlantis angle, starting with the introduction of the Athenians. He’s generally quite good at fitting the pieces together, working out a general outline and often significant details of what’s going on, a talent marred only by a lack of confidence in his conclusions. I can count on him to point his fellow players towards a desired conclusion, though not always to get them there. When he shouted an exasperated “They’re Greeks, okay guys?” to protracted descriptions and observation of the invaders, I thought he meant it literally, and would soon work out the Atlantis connection. Perhaps he had worked it out long ago and was keeping mum out of a polite refusal to spoil the reveal. Sadly, he did not; he just meant they’re clearly modeled on ancient Greeks. More than he realized! With that broad out-of-game hint, he reports by email that he’s thought things over and thinks the penny has dropped. “You bastard. If I’m right, you bastard.”

It warms a GM’s heart.

So the question on my mind is: Was I wrong to drop the hint out of character? Providing the information in-game would be fine, obviously, though it probably wouldn’t achieve the desired purpose. The PCs, having no Atlantis myth to recognize, wouldn’t react to the information as a warning to sail away as fast as possible. (Nor, really, would I want that.) Indeed, the PCs and players both know they’re about to witness the gods’ wrath, a “great unmaking,” even if they don’t know what form it will take, and haven’t fled. My players are quite scrupulous about separating player knowledge from character knowledge. That is generally laudable, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but every so often it can be a dreadful nuisance.

Many PCs will die in the sinking of Atlantis, so instead I’m offering a lot of personal goals for them to achieve in its last days (and their own): revenge, divine favor, honor. Ideally, a few will survive to carry the tale to Egypt, where priests will pass it on to Solon in the classical era of Greece. But nobody will achieve anything meaningful if they don’t undergo a rapid change of focus from a growing helplessness in saving the world to seizing something of value before it ends.

Acting on meta-game knowledge isn’t very satisfying. But then, neither is dying helpless and hopeless, and I’m short of time and options. I’ve denied Dave his character’s innocence and the option of acting in ignorance, in order to turn him into my co-conspirator in finding excuses to guide PCs to personal triumphs even as the world collapses. Could I have done this any better? And how?

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