“Metropolis Dreaming”: A Horror Module for Roleplay
While GM’ing Ten Candles with some of its base modules, I noticed that my players and I sometimes had difficulty maintaining a focused story. We would often make up details that would be resolved partially, awkwardly, or not at all. That’s OK sometimes, if you want the mystery of your terrible enemy to remain obscured. But I wanted to try giving myself and my players something more fleshed out to dig into. This module is my attempt to offer that extra something. With tweaks, I’m sure it could apply to other roleplaying systems.
There is, by design, too much information in this module for Ten Candles. If you try to hold onto it all, you won’t be able to craft dynamic situations with your players. Everything is optional, and wherever a player develops a story element that contradicts or preempts something written here, it is wise to defer to the player.
This document is meant to be read by the GM in the order presented. It is broken up into four sections:
Setup: The core of the module, including the public introduction and two starting scenes. The inspiration for the premise comes mostly from dystopian stories like “1984”, “THX 1138”, and “The Matrix.”
Locales: Some good spots for scenes, variously paced.
Messages from Party Leader Mazzik: Worth reading aloud at certain points for immersion. Some may be more relevant to the current plot situation than others.
In writing this module, I’m assuming that you’ve picked up and read the Ten Candles core rules. There are some references to that game in here, but it should be pretty understandable even if you haven’t.
Text marked in blue is meant to be read directly to players at the appropriate time…not that you have to. I’m not your Overseer.
Please report typos or other inconsistencies to a city patrolman, or to the State Typo Authority.
This is the module as the players will know it. Read it aloud when the Ten Candles rulebook prompts you to.
The year is 2191. You have lived all your life under the absolute authority of the State. Though you live together in a crumbling tenement apartment, you are not allowed family or close friends. You are identified only by a first name and ID number, both of which are tattooed onto your forearms. Your body, your life, even your thoughts are property of the Party, the State’s ruling body. The face of Party Leader Mazzik peers down at you from grimy television screens in every room of every building, murmuring propaganda. Your memories are a blur; you recall nothing from more than five years ago.
Each night, you perform a ritual called the Plugin. As far back as you remember, your sleep has been electronically augmented by your connection to the State-spanning “Psychnet” interface that, it is said, connects you to the minds of all your fellow citizens and to the will of the Party. You’re dependent on Psychnet to rejuvenate you quickly after a full day of hard labor. Each night, after sharing an hour of leisure in the tenements, you open up the freezer to reveal a series of cables with gooey organic tips. You pull out the cables, connect them to one another’s necks, immerse yourselves in three hours of Plugin, and wake up fresh for a new day. Plugin is bliss; it’s all you’ve ever needed or wanted.
Ten days ago, the sky blackened and the Sun went out. You assumed that your salvation would lie with the authority of Party Leader Mazzik, whose million televised faces advocate calmness and resolve in the face of this “controlled setback.” But now, many of his telescreens have switched off. There are intermittent food, water, and power shortages. The public plazas grow more and more empty. Some of your acquaintances have vanished without explanation. Each morning, the Party broadcasts a decree restricting you to tighter and tighter confines within the city, but the once-impenetrable composure of the armor-clad city patrolmen has given way to trembling nervousness. When the lights from the complex next to you all went out at once, you think you heard muffled screams from inside.
Even the Plugin has degraded. Since the Darkness, Psychnet isn’t doing enough for you. You’re jumpy; you’re exhausted; you’re slipping. You’re having alien thoughts and urges that frighten you. The quality of your work is suffering. You know people that have been injured on the job; that never used to happen. Of course, people never used to disappear, either. Or maybe they did? You can’t remember.
You don’t know it yet, but something terrible will happen at tonight’s Plugin: you’ll have a brush with Them. And when you wake from your collective dream, you’ll know a terrifying truth: that They have marked you for reaping.
You’ve got to sneak and lie your way out of this dying city, before They come for you. The trams can take you some of the distance, but you’ll need to resort to more desperate routes as you approach the edge. Factories pepper the cityscape, and rumor has it that secret transit tunnels connect all of them, but you don’t know what information to trust. And you’ll be traveling against the wishes of Party Leader Mazzik, whose protection you’ve enjoyed for so long. What happens if you incur his wrath?
Goal: Make your way out of the city before They come for you.
Areas of note: Tenements; dark blocks; tram system; factories; transit tunnels
Ideally the Player Characters’ (PCs’) occupations are mostly manual stuff: miner; manufacturer; station maintainer; garbage collector; crane operator; etc. Having a propagandist or a patrolman might be interesting.
Opening Scenes: Your Apartment / The Plugin
I see this pair of introductory scenes as fundamental to the module. In a game of Ten Candles, you may want to use them together as an extra “Scene Zero”. Instead of lighting your tealight candles while reading the Ten Candles instructions, you could instead wait to start lighting them until right before you narrate “Your apartment”, which is a short scene anyway and doesn’t really leave any opportunities for dice rolls.
“The plugin” directly follows “Your apartment”. It breaks one of the rules of Ten Candles in that the ending to the scene is always meant to be narrated by the GM, even if a player would otherwise earn the right to determine the scene’s resolution. Unlike “The plugin”, “Your apartment” does include dice rolls. As the scene concludes, the GM will have observed the players’ behavior enough to determine the motivation of the antagonists (Them) — unless, of course, a player has floated another idea.
One of the PCs is last to return home. The rest are waiting patiently.
You unzip and remove your full-body suit, depositing it in the laundry box. Underneath, you’re dressed in a thin, simple white shirt and briefs, as are all the others in the room.
PCs talk about their day as they eat. This could be a different way to initiate the Ten Candles voice recordings: treat the recordings as a tense conversation over dinner instead of as individual logs.
It’s time to go to sleep. You arrange your sleeping mats on the floor.
You twist a handle at the front of the freezer. A red light turns off on the door, which slides upward to open with a hiss. A flow of mist tumbles out and creeps across the mats towards your feet.
You reach in with both arms and carefully pull out two handfuls of foam-wrapped cable. More mist falls away from them as they emerge.
Select someone to distribute the Psychnet connections. I haven’t tried it, but IRL you could give players pieces of ice to hold to their necks.
At the tip of each cable is a pencil-thin fleshy red membrane covered in yellow-tinted gel. It smells strongly of ammonia, rust, and sugar. It cracks and fizzes like dry ice. Behind your right ear is a small hole surrounded by scar tissue. You know what to do.
You settle down onto your sleeping mats. The lights are controlled via a basketball-sized button set in the middle of the floor, which is itself a light. You press it to begin the dimming sequence. The ceiling lights fade to black in less than a minute, which is long enough for you to notice your vision going purple. It’s working. The remaining light shines dimly from the button itself. You’re feeling sleepy now. The only faint sound comes from your room’s telescreen. It was saying something about unity and togetherness earlier, but now it’s emitting soothing static.
The PCs share a collective dream together, making decisions from the same perspective. At the end of this dream, they will finally understand their peril.
You’re lying on the ground, in the middle of the street, gazing up into a cloudy midday sky. There’s cool rain flying towards you. It comes at you in layers. You’re counting how many drops hit your body at the same time. One. Five. Three. Eighteen. Six. Sixty-two. One hundred and seven. Two. Thirty-five. Someone’s calling your name. Where are they calling from?
The GM and players engage in some free improvisation, with no dice rolls. One way or another, the dream transitions into something more sinister…
You’re in a factory. You don’t recognize it. You’re in a dark cramped room at the assembly line, arranging shiny, thumb-sized cylindrical objects into rows as they pass before you on a conveyor belt. There’s an art to it. The rows are not all the same; you’re putting them into patterns that please you. If you were a pianist, it might look like sheet music to you. But you’re not. You’re a factory worker. You’re having fun and being yourself, as factory workers do.
You look behind you. You’re sharing your workspace with another citizen. She is at a parallel conveyor belt, doing the same things you are. In fact, she’s doing it better. Her patterns are far superior to yours. Jealousy and shame wash over you. You feel the need to do something about it.
The PCs interact as they choose with this other worker. This is where they’ll start rolling dice. They might try to copy her patterns, or improvise better ones, or sabotage her work. They might just try to smash everything. Keep in mind the choices they make here, because They are taking notice.
Your hear a knock on the door to your left. It’s your boss. You can see his face and upper body behind the cloudy glass pane. You turn towards the door and start walking. You’re walking very slowly. He’s still knocking, beating a steady rhythm into the glass. You worry it might break.
You get about a foot away and reach for the door. Your boss’s face looks like he’s having a fit. His eyes are bulging, and there’s a vein popping out in his temple. Suddenly, his knocks become inhumanly fast. A spiderweb of cracks appears in the glass, and his huge arms smash through. Now, he’s throttling you.
The PCs attempt to escape the hostile dream factory (still as one character) until their eventual failure.
At this point, when everyone’s character has been created and the first scene has been acted out, you probably have a clue as to what kind of characters your PCs are – not just by virtue of what they’ve designed on paper, but as a result of the actions they’ve taken. The GM makes a snap decision now: What ideal does the group as a whole embody? You have two choices: order or anarchy. Whichever ideal you choose, They represent the opposite.
The scene ends as the collective dream-PC is brought before a shadowy tribunal. The presence of a hateful, implacable mob boils below. What do they want? Well, naturally, it’s the opposite of what the PCs want. If you judge that the PCs appeal to order, then They are a vengeful rebel spirit composed of repressed thoughts and memories circulating in Psychnet. If the PCs are more anarchic, They are an overzealous inquisitor program housed in a crumbling system, bent on one final act of thought control. Either way, They accuse the PCs of terrible crimes and sentence them to death…at which point, the PCs wake up as individuals. So begins the next scene.
Maybe the players don’t feel that this is their call to action. If so, their characters can go to work as usual, but eventually some narrative trick and/or hostile encounter will force them to come around. (Perhaps others have seen this ‘tribunal dream’ and have subsequently died in their sleep.)
But why is the sky dark? Why, indeed.
These city locations are neither necessary nor exclusive. I arranged them in the order I’d expect to see them over the course of the story, but that is also optional.
The tram station is a good place for a tense social altercation. In a more desperate hour, maybe you’ll revisit it.
The tram stations are the pride of the city. They are lined with pristine white porcelain. Wall-mounted lighting from just above your heads glares at you and dances off the floor and tiles. Everything glimmers like crystal. Far above, you can dimly see the vaulted ceiling, shrouded in relative shadow.
Your view ahead is obstructed by massive concrete barriers, designed to funnel you into queues before departure. You can see at least one telescreen from every area in the station. Colored lines are painted on the floor to direct you where you need to go. Conveniently, a stripe at the breast of your bodysuit matches one of these colors. Not all of you have the same-colored stripe.
There are not many people here today. The patrolmen are spaced further apart, but two of them are making their presence known aggressively: they’re pulling a man out of line for questioning right now. Otherwise, it’s quiet as a library. From beyond the barriers, you can hear a tram pulling out of the station.
People are plugged in and vegetative. In some cases their heartbeats have stopped and their extremities are turning blue, but their eyes still occasionally flutter open and shut.
There’s a crumpled shape ahead, slumped against a wall. Drawing closer, you realize that it’s a man, and that he’s plugged in. The cord leads from his neck through a nearby doorway and out of sight, presumably towards his living quarters. How did he get out here?
Some of the tram tunnels lead…deeper. These passages are crossed by narrow waterways, rusty ladders and precarious catwalks. You’ll occasionally find panels in the walls. These might contain shielding suits, small flashlights, a convenient crawlspace, or the corpse of a previous escapee.
The panel is clearly marked and easy enough to open. You heave it aside and are greeted with a blast of static. A bright light switches on from inside. You shut your eyes to it right as the static coalesces into a familiar, echoing voice. You peer at the light through your fingers…it’s Mazzik again, of course, on another telescreen. Beneath the screen is a column of slide-out drawers.
Piping, printers, computers, and vehicles abound. Automated processes continue to run, but not always productively. Some machines may be waiting in the dark to act…destructively.
It would be pitch-black in here but for Mazzik’s pale blue telescreens. Clicks, whirrs, punches, and hisses blend together into a dull roar as the silhouettes of hundreds of machines rise and fall around you.
Power Plant / Boiler Room
Maybe you came here on purpose, or maybe just because you saw a vague, red light in the distance. Red light’s better than no light, isn’t it? It’s tempting to stay here a while, in the warmth of the machines and the emergency lighting. You settle down to rest and get your bearings.
You’re interrupted by a shrill RIIIINNNNGG from the white telephone on the wall.
It’s wide and slow, like the Styx. It’s deep and dark, like secrecy itself. This could be a good place for characters to confront lurking predators, or their own inner demons and urges.
The cracked and battered concrete that flanks you gives way to ancient masonry wrapped in peeling paint. Before you and below you is an inky void. Your eyes and ears adjust to the scene, and you realize that you’re looking at a wide expanse of water, churning slowly away from massive cast-iron pipes on your right, into the vague distance to your left. A small boat is moored nearby.
The shafts just don’t stop, and neither does the chase: up and up, and up. A detour away from one shaft only seems to lead to another. The ladders whistle and whine as huge volumes of air rake across them. Wait…is that a trash pile, or a makeshift bed?
There are plenty of telescreens in this cramped room, but no Mazzik. If you peer closer, you can make out rows and rows of…people? People, plugged in. Plugged in and withered away as if they’ve never stood up in their life. They’re packed together like sardines. You realize that, to these unfortunate specimens, the plugin might mean something very different from what it means to you.
The vast library of trays that house these people is meant to be accessed periodically by technicians. And if you’re here in this room, you’re obviously a technician. Just open the far door on your right…
The Plugin (again)
A colorful dreamscape and strange repetitive counting tasks are offered to the PC ad infinitum. If you want to escape this torpor, or to take advantage of the Psychnet system to help anyone in the real world, it’s going to be a struggle. You just need to concentrate…
Messages from Party Leader Mazzik
Mazzik’s telescreens are everywhere but the most remote sections of the City. Eventually, his familiar words may become the PCs’ only source of comfort.
"We are together; united. We stand as one. We work as one. We build as one. We sleep as one. Each day, we go forth and do just and good work for the Party. Each night, we return to the safety of our ideal unconscious state. We experience toil and hardship separately – but bliss, together. Isn't it a wonderful thing?"
“There have been isolated cases of citizens seeking to acquire food and other goods from darkened city blocks. Please be advised that dark areas are off-limits, even if we haven’t yet had time to cordon them off. In some cases, these buildings are condemned – structurally unsound – and trespassing could be dangerous. Please be responsible, and avoid darkened areas.”
"I want to take a moment to talk about civility. Civility is the art of mutual respect: respect for one another, respect for the Party. We must treat one another as we ourselves want to be treated. Civility requires a little empathy: we must feel for one another. Empathy is ideal. Empathy stems from the Plugin. In the past, we fought against each other at terrible cost. Over time, the great among us came to realize the true extent of that cost, and vowed to find a solution. That solution, Psychnet, is what keeps us together. It enables us to empathize. It enables us to feel."
“Remember: A crime conceived is half a crime committed, yet there is still time for redemption. If you have recently thought of harming or wronging another citizen, or stealing from an office or industry, report yourself to a boss, guardsman, or quarantine office for correction.”
"We are aware that our current troubles with the lack of direct sunlight have been causing some discomfort among you. To alleviate some of that stress, we are authorizing an additional hour of plugin each night for those citizens that request it. If you're feeling blue, feel free to walk to your friendly local Forms Office and request Form P107-B. It has all the standard fields – your biomarkers, recent dreams from Psychnet, and so on. It also asks you to describe the past ten days' experiences. Answer in as much detail as possible. Please do not speak of these experiences to other citizens, as they may be distressing to them. When you've submitted the form, wait up to a day for your place of work to be contacted. Check your mailbox for a confirmation message from your workplace and another from PartyDirect. Once you’ve received them, follow the PartyDirect instructions to receive your additional sleep."
“You may worry that you are just a drop in a vast sea, whose words and deeds don’t matter to the rest of us. Rest assured: nothing you say or do escapes our notice. Think of every moment as an opportunity – an opportunity to prove your loyalty to the Party. Leave a legacy of greatness for future citizens to remember you by.”
Finally, here are some extra characters that might flesh out the story. If your playgroup already has a lot of ideas, there’s often no need for the GM to introduce auxiliary characters at all.
Bonnie 026 is your boss. She’s fiercely protective of you and her other workers, which sometimes brings her at odds with the City Patrolmen. She walks the fine line as best she can. You have her sympathy, but bring any undue trouble to her community at your own peril.
An old misfit, Cassius 503 has had encounters with patrolmen several times. He’s a nervous wreck – barely functional, physically. But despite all the “corrections” he’s undergone, he has a better memory than any of you. Maybe he can help you to navigate in the city’s outskirts, or to piece together the mystery of how all this came to be.
Earnest and aware, Nicholas 188 has experienced the same vision as you — the same dream, precisely. Over time, he’s gradually overcome with guilt for helping you. By the end of his time spent with you, he’s looking for ways to betray you, so that he might return to the Plugin and the good graces of Mazzik.
Minor / Unnamed Characters
Citizens try to carry on as best they can. They avoid confrontation whenever possible. To most citizens, knowledge is as dangerous as it is worthless. Admitting knowledge is the greatest danger.
Escapees are, perhaps literally, in the same boat as the PCs. They’ve made the decision to leave the city, but their minds are still working to process the consequences of that decision.
Patrolmen are people like anyone else, and they’re scared. They have a procedure for dealing with troublemakers: Arrest them, take them to a low-visibility area, and plug them in for “correction”.
Soldiers are rarely visible to average citizens, but everyone’s aware of their existence. As the darkness spreads, they roam the borders in squads. Occasionally, they make doomed attempts at incursions into dark territory. They have better success against escapees, whom they shoot on sight.
Sleepwalkers are thralls of Them. They’re supposed to attack you on sight, but they might not have the brain function to do so. The best Sleepwalkers can speak and work together to accomplish tasks.
Feral outcasts have been “free” for a long time, for what it’s worth. Their sidetracked development makes them incompatible with Plugin.