Play Report: Let Us In by Luka Rejec (Exalted Funeral/WTF Studio, 2021)

This report contains all the spoilers.

I recently ran Luka Rejec’s 2021 Halloween one-shot Let Us In for my club, the Games Gang. This is a beautiful risograph chapbook printed in orange and black, and our experience of the game lived up to the beauty and vibe of the design. I run a lot of one-shots in this club, frequently using an unfamiliar system - we are trying to play through my large and ever-growing collection - and I always come away thinking I could run the game a lot better the second time. This game is somewhat of an exception; although I did make some fairly major errors, it felt very successful on the first go, and I think that is largely attributable to the game’s thoughtful design. The overall experience was one of steadily increasing tension turning into desperation, dwindling hope in the face of snowballing danger, and unexpected survival after giving up completely.

To prepare, I assembled the playlist provided by the author on the back of the book - with the exception of Phantasmagoria “Poziv U Raj” which I could not find. I read through the book a few times, and I read the author’s “The Lastlands Metasetting” article on his website. I downloaded and printed the character cards and the map, which were included when I bought the book on Exalted Funeral. I lit a dangerous number of black candles, and we were ready to begin.

As instructed, I read the characters’ descriptions to the players, leaving out their motivations and abilities, and asked the players to choose, then handed out the character cards. I love running games with few or no rules, so I was happy to stick with the “d6 Know Resolution” system outlined in the book, which is simple enough I can reiterate it here: roll 1d6; low is failure, middle is success with complication, high is success. Adjust the failure/marginal/success boundaries depending on whether the character is competent at the action, add +1 or +2 as appropriate to circumstances and tools. For me, that’s all the system I generally need, and I think my choice to stick with that rather than try to use a more elaborate rule system to run the game was part of the reason it was successful.

A. chose to play Elmena, the Relative; E. chose Amata the Friend; N. chose Banya the Driver, and T. was left with Yasha the Guide. They took a moment to read their characters’ motivations - I had instructed them that they may or may not wish to share them with the group - and their actions. These actions are like special abilities with a limited number of uses that allow the otherwise ordinary characters to be heroic or at least cinematic in key moments. Having just two actions and a few simple motivations, and really nothing else to look at on the character card, really helped the players to stay focused on the fictional situations and to make decisions from their characters’ points of view, rather than looking to the character sheet for answers, which made the experience more fast-paced, more tense, and more fun.

I handed Elmena the letter from her aunt Vira printed in the book. (Actually I forgot to print the letter so I read it aloud, but it would have been better to hand it to her.) The letter ominously states “…ignore the previous letters. You do not need to come and take us home. Everything is alright….” The contents of the “previous letters,” like much in this game, is left to the imaginations of the players and the referee - an extension I suppose of Rejec’s “anti-canon”/“metasetting” philosophy, which lends itself particularly well to the horror genre.

I then read “The Arrival” aloud; I don’t normally read boxed text verbatim as it is harder for players to absorb compared to paraphrasing, but Rejec’s text is too good to paraphrase:

A distant dog howls; a pack answers. The eyes of sheep glint in the headlights’ glare as the Matador autogolem turns down the gravel drive. Pale dust sparkles on the teal machine. The black gate, topped with razor wire, stops the vehicle. With a fizz, an orange floodlight comes on. With a whine, the electric motor pulls the gate open. The autogolem stirs and rolls inside.

The sleek, modernist mansion slides into view, its front door ajar. A dog begins to bark. The gate closes behind.

At this point, I instructed the players to roll on the Flashback Table - another neat example of the game’s fill-in-the-blanks narrative style - meant to represent things the characters noticed earlier on the drive - the results my players got included “The thermal plant is dark despite the chill” and “Row of farmers gazing at the heroes’ autogolem in unison.” I described the key elements of the scene again - gate closed, dogs barking, orange floodlights, front door ajar, then started the playlist with “People Are Strange” by the Doors. (This is not the first song on the author’s list, but the game text states that “People Are Odd” by The Other Doors is playing on the radio in the opening scene so I started the playlist here and set it to repeat so the first six songs would play after the last song.) As the music played, the creepy action began: a group of people appeared at the gate, speaking and moving in unison, and asking to be let in.

I have the type of players (is there any other type?) who will spend as much time as I let them debating every decision, even during the most acute emergencies, to which I typically react by escalating the situation, to provoke action. This dynamic would cause this particular game to spiral rapidly into a futile-feeling disaster (in the fiction) that came dangerously close to feeling too impossible for my players to have fun. This was primarily due to two factors: first, the author’s repeated description of the enemies (the post-humans, called po-hus) “surrounding the mansion” - which I took logically to mean there must be quite a large crowd of them, on the order of one hundred, which quite resonably made escape seem nearly impossible to my players; second, I completely forgot that when the po-hus touch the characters and deliver their nematocysts that move their victims one step closer to losing their identity, the players get to roll to resist the effect - so every time the characters were touched, they moved one step closer to merging with the hive mind, which meant that one of them fell victim very rapidly when conflict eventually began, and that scared the crap out of everyone. As I said, the feeling of futility created by these two factors did not completely derail the game but it teetered on the edge between, tense-but-fun and hopeless-and-frustrating.

Back to the opening scene: my players’ characters spent a long time in the driveway discussing what to do - whether to go into the house with the door mysteriously standing open, what to do about the crowd of people asking to be let in, etc. They sent Yasha the local guide to talk to them, and he was able to honestly plead lack of authority to open the gate for them. The po-hus’ unison speech and movements were unsettling but did not cause them immediately to be taken as a grave threat, which was perfect. As the characters stood around talking, a baseball was thrown into the driveway, and the creepy townies all asked in unison if they could come in and get the ball; when it was tossed back, they all made a catching motion while the nearest one caught the ball without looking, robotically - this was enough to cause the players to move their characters into the mansion.

My portrayal of the po-hus and their behavior was determined by a series of d8 tables provided in the book; I never rolled on any of these tables, but I referred to them for ideas for specific attributes and actions, and I also used them as a general guide to extrapolate further traits and behaviors, which I hope is the spirit of the metasetting approach.

As the players explored the mansion, they had the same map as me - the interior of the house was not mapped out; there was simply a list of the rooms on each floor. Elmena, being the occupant’s niece and heir, would presumably have a fairly complete knowledge of the layout of the house, so the players could just name which rooms they wanted to visit, and the dreary dungeoncrawl vibe could be dispensed with, creating a more cinematic experience. 

This game also came with a real-world timetable, divided into three hours, with d8 tables for events that could occur during those three segments. Again, I never rolled on these tables, but used them as reference.

The players quickly decided to look for aunt Vira in the master bedroom, where her body was discovered. They soon figured out how to open the panic room and found the terrified assistant to Aunt Vira’s partner Aranca, a scientist who had been studying the strange contagion gripping the town. As the plot was developing rapidly, I also ramped up the danger outside: more and more strange townies were gathering outside the fence, and a storm was blowing in, strong winds threatening to break a branch of the old linden tree overhanging the fence. The sound of glass breaking was heard as a brick was thrown through a downstairs window.

The players and characters were delightfully (to me) mistrustful of the assistant and suspicious of the manner of Vira’s death (an apparent suicide), and their suspicion was further inflamed by the discovery of a mutilated corpse in Aranca’s lab. This corpse also gave them a clue about the nature of the danger posed by the mob outside the gate: an anemone-like growth on the palm of the hand. This, combined with the assistant’s story about a strange contagion and Aranca’s search for a cure, made it clear that the heroes were in danger.

There were too many people outside the gate to push through them in the small sports car they had come in - I must have telegraphed the idea that the po-hus would not yield to an oncoming car as a normal person would - and Aunt Vira’s off-road vehicle was out of commission. The book indicated that the characters might repair the van with parts from another vehicle at the nearby Ospidal, but as the po-hus had already surrounded the mansion, they never thought of a trip to the Ospidal as a possibility.

This was my major stumbling block in running this game, as I discussed above - I moved too quickly to the mansion being surrounded, and the players felt at a loss trying to think of any way out of the situation. The book stated that the po-hus surround the mansion “soon” on page 9 and then on page 10 it says “As the first po-hus appear, more walk out of the trees and mist to surround the mansion.” Looking at the map and imagining the mansion to be surrounded, I saw at least a hundred po-hus out there, and it reached that point before the players ever thought about trying to escape. The next time I run it, I will slow down the arrival of the po-hus to give the players a little more hope for a little longer (before inevitably extinguishing all hope - it’s the nature of this game.)

Once they realized the van was useless, they started brainstorming increasingly far-fetched and/or monstrous ways to escape, involving attaching tree branches to the car, or dousing the crowd in gasoline and lighting them on fire, or attaching a halberd to the car (I liked that one but when I asked what they would use to attach it they gave up on the idea) - as they were mired in debate I escalated the situation again - the tree branch snapped in the wind and fell on the fence, and the po-hus rushed in.

I should describe another neat tool in this game, the humanity track - each character has a track from P to M  with four seps in between; when they are touched by a po-hu they move toward P, and when they behave monstrously (like suggesting dousing a crowd of townies in gasoline and torching them), they move toward M. When They reach P they are absorbed into the hive mind, and when they reach M they become so monstrous the hive mind rejects them and they are safe (but at what cost?). So behaving monstrously is protective against the enemies’ attacks, though the players don’t know that. I had two characters reach P but looking back, one of them maybe should have reached M first, and the game would have been better for it. But that’s jumping ahead; we’ll get there shortly.

As the po-hus rushed the characters, we had the first dice rolls of the game. A marginal result meant that Yasha had to choose between safely reaching shelter in the car and helping Banya, whose old knee injury reasserted itself at the worst possible time. A failure meant that Yasha and Banya were surrounded by po-hus, who moved in to embrace them with identical gleeful smiles. Banya monstrously attacked them with a chainsaw and managed to reach the car covered in core, but was touched by some of the po-hus before she could mow them down.

I wasn’t sure how to narrate the effects of the po-hus’ touch; there was a table describing the sensation of being absorbed into the hive mind, but none of those entries seemed to apply to a non-terminal touch, so I freestyled and described a shooting pain like a jellyfish sting. This is where I must also remind the reader that I completely forgot that players are meant to have an opportunity to roll a saving throw against the effects of the po-hus’ touch, so things were more dangerous than they were meant to be.

They managed to all get in the car and tried to leave the mansion, but the po-hus refused to yield and Banya just mowed them down. However, the sports car was not able to surmount the growing pile of bodies, its drive wheels were stymied by po-hus wrapping their arms and legs around them heedlessly, and the car ground to a halt just as it got close enough to trigger the automatic gate to open, unleashing a further torrent of enemies on the heroes, who were now trapped in the car being swarmed, the po-hus beating on the windows and roof with bloody fists. They made a break for the steep hill toward the old fallout shelter, and Yasha was overwhelmed and became a po-hu.

The others tumbled dangerously down the slope, and Banya was badly injured on her already-injured knee (the result of rolling another 1). Inside the fallout shelter, they fashioned protective garments out of sheets and blankets, having deduced that the palm-to-skin touch of the po-hus was the danger, and made a desperate dash for the back door of the house. Banya, being unable to run, decided to sacrifice herself to save the others, and this is where I really missed an opportunity: by attacking the crowd with a chainsaw for the second time after having mowed them down with the car, show probably ought to have reached the M on her humanity tracker and thus become immune to the po-hus’ touch. I confess I forgot about the monstrosity mechanic in the heat of play. So Banya was also absorbed into the hive mind. This did create a fun moment where Elmena and Amata, having just closed the back door on the po-hu mob, heard Banya shouting “Let Us In!” and for a second were unsure whether their companion was still alive. But it would have been much more interesting had Banya become so inhuman through her gruesome actions that the po-hus were repelled by her.

Inside the mansion, the last two characters tried to think of ways to escape. They revived the old long-range holosphere in the attic and managed to get someone from the city to send an aerovator to rescue them; unfortunately they watched out the window as the aerovator landed on the aeropad at the Ospidal and was immediately swarmed by po-hus. Eventually the resigned themselves to their fate, which they imagined was the inevitable encroachment of the po-hus and their assimilation into the hive mind. They sat in the waiting room and got drunk.

At this point we had played for three hours in real time and we were nearing the end of our allotted play time, so I simply revealed that the po-hus never came in the mansion (they must be invited in!) and then they eventually disappeared when the device they were constructing on the Ospidal roof was complete and they uploaded themselves bodily into the heavens. We did not play through the final phase of the game where the dwindling resources of the mansion must be managed in order to survive, which may have been a bit anticlimactic after the fast-paced and panicked events preceding it. I read the denouement described in the book and we called it a night.

We gave Let Us In a rating of 4.6 pips (out of 6 of course). I think if I ran it again with the lessons I learned from this session it would get a higher rating. This is a really well-designed game both aesthetically and mechanically; it was a joy to run, and my players were intensely engaged throughout. 

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