Descent Into Midnight is Riverhouse Games’ hot new Powered By The Apocalypse project about being sentient aquatic beings with psionics living in an underwater society fully devoid of any human influence. Players create a unique city, its inhabitants, their own character species, and a major threat in the form of a crawling corruption that they fight back against during play.
I recently got a group together to play with the publicly-available playtest version of the game, and so far we’ve gotten through the “First Session” steps of world and player creation, and that’s what we’re here to talk about!
Before getting into the process itself, I wanna make a quick note about Descent’s tone. This is, unabashedly, a game that really wants its players to consider their actions and the emotional and narrative impacts they have, and that’s awesome. We experienced some of that during creation, and I can’t help but be very curious to see how it gets pulled off in regular adventure play.
A great example of a Move players have that sets this tone is the one for physical conflict:
The bonus you gain to this move isn’t reliant on any of your stats, but on the situation at hand. Anyone can be a valuable fighter, but the questions are geared in a way that very clearly wants you to only engage in conflict when it’s truly needed instead of just fighting to fight. Nothing’s stopping you from making a violent character, either, and that might be interesting to see in play- but the game itself is not, in any way, focused on physical conflict. Beyond that, the player Agendas and GM Principles- guidelines for everyone to focus on during play- all steer the players towards a considerate, involved focus.
What’s in Session 0?
In the playtext game text, DiM lays out the must-dos for the first session. The first time you all gather, you create your characters and two main facets of the world: The Setting (the city your game will be based in) and The Corruption (the main antagonist and source of strife in DiM. The process is fun and very interesting, once it gets going. It can be a bit difficult to build the setting from scratch since the game wants you to create things totally untouched by humanity. For my group, this led to a bit of struggle to come up with something we felt was truly alien enough, but once we got goin’ we were off to the races!
Building The City
Descent Into Midnight takes place on an alien planet entirely bereft of humans. The creatures have evolved in their own ways, developing their own cultures and technologies. One of the core conceits of Descent is that the setting you play in is all your own, a completely distinct and unique world created together by the players and game master during the first session of play, before actually setting out on adventures.
You go around the group, each player responding to a prompt and drawing on a map to place landmarks in as much detail as they want. The broader nature of these landmarks is further-discussed and determined by the players as a group, moving on once everyone is satisfied. It’s very open-ended, and the questions (in our experience) lead to something phenomenal and personal.
The city creation took up the bulk of our time, somewhere around 2 hours, but we ended up with something pretty rad:
A city built within a carved-out underwater mountain so far beneath the surface no light reaches it. Illuminated entirely by bioluminescent creatures serving as neon-esque streetlights, we decided it has a “seaberpunk” aesthetic (shouts out to Taylor for coining a term that’s as weird to read as it is to say). The capitol building in the middle (CAP) was carved from rock to look like coral and beneath it lies a nursery where all eggs are put until the yearly Hatching Day. 10-foot eels (to the right of “the boys” along the top) tunnel through the rock twice a year to create new paths and expand our living space.
“The Boys” are tube worms that take care of the eggs in the nursery. There are giant nautilus that circle the mountain and used as transport. The mountain is surrounded on all sides by a dense forest of massive seaweed trees that serve as and gather food. There’s a suburban district built into the walls, and an antenna that allows us to communicate across vast distances on the outside wall.
We came up with other, smaller details, too- there’s a certain kind of lighting creature that’s used for a networked communication through a kind of morse code- it’s as old as the city. Hatching Day is a huge deal that looks like a lantern festival and serves as a birthday celebration for the entire city, except for the players’ characters.
Like most games that are Powered By The Apocalypse, character creation is pretty simple. You choose one of the provided playbooks, fill it out, and come up with whatever details you want to. It’s kinda the quickest part of Session 0, but just as important as the rest. DiM’s playbooks are as unique as the rest of the game. Focused on the nature of your characters’ emotions and on creating hooks for personal stories, they range from newly-sentient members of typically-nonsentient species to science experiments and things touched by corruption.
As a part of creation, you tie your characters together by answering questions about their Links- something that we found also served as a great way to build out extra details of the world. We learned a lot through this process, both about the characters and how they ended up tied together. You choose unique moves, team moves, and your aesthetics. Like all PbTA stuff, it’s straightforward and gives a fair bit of new insight.
Defining The Corruption
Once we had our setting and characters, we had to figure out what form our Corruption takes. The text tells you it can be pretty much anything and provides a few examples including physical corruption that kills whatever it touches and a psionic corruption that manipulates people.
We ended up going with a psionic form of the cordyceps fungus- something that crawls into the residents of our city and controls them without their knowing. We also learned that it was something that destroyed the home of one of our characters, and that they’d fled here as a part of their escape.
Since we did this step further into creation, it was fairly easy! We had plenty of things defined as “Good”, so it was relatively natural to create something that twists them into their opposites, or creates cracks in the safety of our city- something it was valued for.
Placing Harmony & Corruption tokens
The last step before play can really begin is to mark points of Harmony and Corruption, and then decide as a group how those aspects manifest.
Harmony is the polar opposite of corruption. While it’s not an infectious force, it represents the good in the world, ourselves, and our community. Locations marked with Harmony are centers of community, while places marked with Corruption have begun to twist into whatever form our corruption takes.
For Corruption, we marked our 10-foot burrowing eels and the tube worms that take care of the eggs in the nursery. We decided that the eels had been digging more than usual and had actually struck a small vein of corruption that was slowly seeping into where the tube worms slept, and that as a result the worms had become more aggressive and neglectful of their caretaking.
Going through the steps of creating a city that’s unique and special to you, then having to decide on two aspects of it that are twisted and broken is difficult and impactful. I love these big eels and the tubey boys! They’re adorable and great and make the city work! But now they’re corrupted, they’re big weak spots on the safe home we created, and things are only going to get worse.
For Harmony, we marked the forest of seaweed trees because it’s a source of food preventing us from going hungry and we marked The Outcropping, our big antenna that allows us to stay connected to other cities and outposts because it serves as a reminder that we’re not alone, and that we’re stronger together.
And then we were done! The creation process in Descent Into Midnight is one of the most unique and fun I’ve had in an RPG like this. It was a couple hours of storygame-style world creation, and I’m excited and curious to see how the Powered By The Apocalypse style of the rest of the game works with the tone and ideals laid out in this first phase.
That wraps up the Play Report for DiM Session 0! For more info and links you should check out the currently-running kickstarter campaign that wraps up on March 16th!
If there’s enough interest, I’ll write up another play report after we finish our second game in a couple weeks! Just @ me on Twitter!