The other day I got together with some good friends for a game of Libreté. It was on short notice and they had never played before, so I decided to run them through the adventure detailed in the Quick Start Guide (QSG), which features a simplified form of the core rules. Here’s how it went:
Cast of Player Characters
Jack (The Leader), played by Lauren
Sally (The Brute), played by B
Robin (The Weirdo), played by Abby
Cast of NPCs
The King of Librete: Achilles
The Smokies: Oilive, Messi, and Rufus
The Lost Children: Max, Peter, and Elebe
This play session features instances of graphic violence committed by and against children, bullying of the same, and a depiction of a panic attack and subsequent self-harm. Libreté is a game where stress and trauma are core gameplay mechanics, but remember to know your players and practice safe gaming at all times.
The players assembled, the rules explained. One by one, I offered each participant the chance to tell me a little bit more about their character. Feeding off of this, I asked them about a defining moment in their past that has colored their relationship with the other members of the party.
Through his natural strength and magnetism, Jack had managed to turn a group of dirty, snivelling children into a small-but-formidable gang. Though nowhere near the most powerful group in the fortress, the Smokies had a reputation for taking on tough jobs outside the walls and returning home intact. Eventually, this brought Jack under the scrutiny of Achilles, especially after Jack blocked an attempted interruption of one of Achilles’ infamous “water trials.” Afterwards, the King of Librete came to Jack with a special mission, one that would truly test the loyalty of his precious Smokies.
Sally was a rough kid who never felt comfortable with the way boys looked at her. Her considerable strength and explosive temper didn’t change the fact that she was a girl and thus ineligible for a place in Achilles’ inner cadre. To protest nature’s cruelty she shaved her head, bound her chest tight with bandages and swaggered around Libreté with a heavy cleaver that had tasted the blood of quite a few fools who had questioned her authority.
In a better world, Robin’s fascination with bugs and dirt would have made them an excellent scientist. In Libreté, it made them a weirdo, a freak. To protect themselves from the cruelty of children Robin joined up with The Smokies and quickly gained a reputation as a useful kid to have around. Robin saw the world differently, noticed things others didn’t—an invaluable skill outside the safety of The Mall.
We began with a flashback to the mission put forth to Jack by Achilles–on a recent scouting mission, a child claimed to have seen a bakery that seemed intact. It was outside of their safe zone, and none of the children were feeling like heroes that day, so they returned home and relayed the info to their gang boss, who brought it to the Triumphirate. With a disarming grin, Achilles told Jack that the possibility of finding fresh milk, flour, or even sugar was simply too good to pass up, and that success on this mission would certainly reflect well upon him and the Smokies.
We returned to the present, as the massive glass doors in the front of the fortress were pulled open and the gang set out into the misty morning rain. Immediately, Sally began eyeing Oilive’s most recent find: a wooden baseball bat, reinforced with pipe clamps to stop it from splintering. After some gentle teasing and prodding, Sally decided to take advantage of the younger, weaker kid and demanded he forfeit his weapon. Reluctantly, Oilive acquiesced. From the front Jack noticed this and tried to step in, but after realizing that throwing his weight around would only further agitate the two–and possibly drive a wedge between him and Sally–he simply sighed and gave Oilive his own weapon, a switchblade he brought with him from the other world.
The party continued walking, putting more and more distance between them and the fortress. The scout had said that the bakery was far, beyond the distance usually considered “safe” (though Librete was the only true sanctuary in the city, the Glass Watch kept sirain activity in the areas directly around the fortress to a minimum). To get to it, they’d have to delve further into the twisting streets than ever before, and if everything went perfectly they would only just make it back before nightfall. Jack led his group loosely, allowing for a certain level of aloofness among his friends. After all, Sally was there in case things got bad, and Robin was an excellent scout themself. As the kids moved between wrecked cars and rubble from abandoned buildings, Robin was crawling through the alleyways and side streets, making sure to keep within a few blocks of the main group but otherwise letting their intuition guide them. This would prove to be a blessing, as their discovery of an open manhole leading to the sewers would become their eventual salvation.
Soon, the gang found themselves at the road leading to the bakery, though it was still a few miles off. Jack allowed his friends a few moments of rest, but it was quickly interrupted by a growing hum in the air and the sounds of rapidly-approaching footsteps–someone was running, in their direction, and fast. Snapping to attention, Jack showed just how effective a leader he was as he brought his lounging gang to fighting positions almost immediately. Crouched behind cars and around the side of buildings, they waited to see what would come out of the fog.
The silhouettes of the unknown aggressors eventually showed themselves to belong to a tall teenage boy, dressed in torn tennis attire and clutching a large bundle of cloth to his chest. Behind him was another boy, thin with eyes like saucers, and behind them was a thick red cloud of stinging, clicking insects. Jack stood and called out to the first boy, but if he was heard he was not regarded. The boy, jaw clenched and still holding the bundle tight to his chest, vaulted over the curb and kept sprinting. This was clearly not going to be a fight.
This became more apparent as the thin stranger slid under a car and cowered with his head between his knees. Suddenly, the Smokies found themselves alone in the streets, with the swarm bearing down on them. Jack made another attempt to rally his troops, but in the chaos his words were caught in his mouth and all he could muster was “…retreat!”. Sally heard this immediately, but as she was farther in front than any of the others the swarm descended on her before she could get her bearings. As she flailed to get the biting bugs off of her, she accidentally hit Jack in the head with Oilive’s stolen bat, opening up a thick gash over his left eye.
The scene was pandemonium. The Smokies had killed Sirain’s before, but a bat or knife was useless against the hundreds of monsters they now found themselves covered with. Oilive and Rufus were still bunkering down behind a car, smashing whatever bugs they could. Sally recalled that she had a bottle of whiskey in her bag, and quickly tore off a piece of her dress to stuff down the neck in the hopes of making a molotov cocktail. But Jack had the only lighter, and despite their best efforts the rain was coming down too hard for the flame to find purchase. As things started to look grim, Robin stuck their head out of an alleyway far behind them and shouted for everyone to run over. It was the alley with the open manhole, and Robin had already guided the first strange boy into it. If the Smokies were to make an escape, now was the time.
Jack grabbed the other strange kid under the car and thrust him forward towards the alley. Rufus and Oilive had already started towards their friend, and Jack did as well. Sally was the last one to make it to the alley as Jack paused briefly to allow her to get into the hole. Jack was never one to leave a friend behind, and here he paid dearly for it. As he watched Sally slide into the narrow passage, a large sirain flew directly into his left eye. The last thing he saw from it was the creature thrashing about, its razored claws tearing through skin and nerves just before everything on that side went black. He screamed, took a step backwards, and fell directly into Sally’s arms. With a labored cry, she dropped from the ladder into the darkness.
Immediately, the Smokies gathered around Jack to see what had happened. The strange children kept to themselves, huddled together on the other end of the small subteranean room. The only light was a thin beam from the outside, but it was enough to illuminate the raggedy group and reveal that the mass of blankets in the boy’s arms were actually another child–a small girl, barely six, and the stuffed rabbit she clung tightly to.
Jack’s eye was a mess. None of the kids had enough medical knowledge to know if it could be salvaged, but they knew their best chance was to return to Librete as soon as possible. The bottle that Sally had tried to ignite was split equally between analgesic and antiseptic, and after a few minutes Jack’s pain had dulled enough for him to finally take stock of their situation. He eyed the new kids with measured suspicion.
The first boy they had seen was also the first to speak. He introduced himself as Max, the other boy as Peter, and the girl as Ebele. He asked where they were, what those things were, and how they were going to get out. But before anyone answer, Sally stood up and confronted him. “You led those things to us!” she spat. “You didn’t even try to help, and look what happened!” She punctuated this accusation with a ringing blow to the wall with Oilive’s bat, which caused him to jump up and accuse her of causing this by stealing his weapon. If he had been able to defend himself, Oilive claimed, he would have been able to help Jack fight the bugs. And besides, you were the one who couldn’t even make a fire! Sally felt her cheeks redden and shoved Oilive up against the wall. Max stood and pulled out a fixed-blade knife. Jack could see that he was losing control of his friends and that things would soon explode if he didn’t step in, but he also knew that getting in Sally’s way would only make her angrier. He shakily stood up and tried to defuse the situation.
“Sally tried her best,” Jack said quietly. “Our weapons were worthless, but if anyone was going to do anything with that bat, it’s her.” Oilive looked to the ground, humiliated and ashamed, and slid back down the wall. Jack was always taking Sally’s side. He said he cared about everyone in the gang, but where was he when Sally was pushing us all around? When she called me “lardass” and stole my dessert, or kicked Messi in the balls when they were playing soccer? Sally was just a bully and a bitch, and if Jack wasn’t willing to stand up to her, someone else had to.
On the other end of the room, Robin had struck up a conversation with Ebele. Ebele asked if Robin, covered as they were in mud and strange markings, was a shaman. Robin answered in the affirmative, and said that they could see the ghosts and spirits that haunted this world. This frightened the young girl, who had found herself in the city as she was walking home from kindergarten. A strange man had approached her and asked her to come with him, and she had run just like her parents taught her. When she finally stopped to catch her breath, she realized she was in an unfamiliar place and was about to start crying when Max, Peter, and Michel appeared. They had been wandering ever since, trying to avoid the clickers and find a way back. Somehow, they had gotten seperated from Michel, but Ebele knew he was going to be okay. Otherwise, Max would have never left him behind.
As Jack talked with Max, Oilive, and Messi about their next moves, Rufus and Peter were amusing themselves by telling dirty jokes to one another. Rufus never took anything seriously, and Peter liked kids that could make him laugh. He’d joined up with Max because he couldn’t stand to be alone, but Max was the complete opposite–beside Ebele, Max didn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. Peter didn’t see anything special about the little girl, and couldn’t really see her as anything more than another mouth to feed, but he knew better than to say anything to Max. That boy was dangerous. After a few moments, Jack turned to address the entire room and declared that he’d decided on a course of action. He’d told Max about Librete, and the combination of their injuries and the discovery of three new children meant that the mission had to be postponed in favor of returning to the fortress. Now that they knew what kind of sirains lurked in this part of the city, Jack reasoned, they could better plan another expedition to the bakery. For now, their only goal should be getting home safely.
The room was quiet for a moment as the children considered Jack’s words. They would be returning empty-handed, which was sure to displease Achilles. He might take a liking to Max, however–Achilles liked strong, fit boys and often recruited them into his personal soldiery. Before anyone could voice dissent, Robin piped up with another suggestion. On the way, they had seen a convenience store with its front window shattered, and had happened to spy some snack cakes still in their wrappers on the shelves. They had helped themselves to a few, of course–but there were still some left when they rejoined their friends, and they hadn’t even thought to look in the back of the store. It was only a few blocks from their current location, and a small group could probably make it there and back within the hour. Well-fed, the entire gang could then begin the journey back to Librete.
Jack was surprised that Robin had hid this from the rest of the group, but then realized that if they had mentioned it, Rufus’ laziness and Oilive’s cowardice would have led them to try and abandon the trip to the bakery altogether. Thanking Robin for this new information, Jack quickly came up with a plan to send Sally, Oilive, Max, and Robin to the convenience store, to return with anything and everything useful they could carry. In the meantime, the rest of them would bandage their wounds and prepare to march back to the fortress.
Sally was the first to peek her head over the manhole cover and out into the street, which was thankfully devoid of any sirains. It appeared that the swarm was mobile, and that without a clear target had simply wandered on to another part of the city. They would have to be careful not to encounter them on the way back. Hoisting herself up and out of the hole, Sally helped the others up and got into position behind Robin as they began to lead the way. Robin’s information was eerily accurate, and after hopping a few cars and ducking under some dropped streetlights the children found themselves at the broken front of an otherwise-intact corner store.
Sally and Oilive immediately rushed inside to survey the shelves. The stock was scant but enticing: prepackaged snack cakes, jerky, and salty chips were in abundance. While it was certainly nothing to subsist entirely on, the kids at Librete would definitely appreciate a break from their normal diet of oats and beans. As the other kids began stuffing their faces, Robin gestured to the back of the shop, darkened and unexplored. Sally was the first to give orders: her and Oilive were going to check the south side for the walk-in freezer, and Max and Robin could explore the managers’ quarters in hopes of finding weapons, cigarettes, or toys. After their quick meal, it was back to work.
Once she knew Max and Oilive were out of earshot, Sally shoved the butt of her bat into Oilive’s pudgy stomach. As Oilive gasped for a breath, Sally sneered: “don’t you ever talk back to me again, butterball. The only reason you’re even in this gang is because Jack has a weakness for charity cases.” With that, she turned and began walking towards the freezer. Oilive wiped hot tears from his eyes as he got to his feet and followed her. From the outside, the freezer was huge and solid; clearly a relic even when the city was alive (if it ever had been). Sally tucked the bat beneath her arm, got a good double-hand grip on the door handle, and pulled with all her strength. As old and rusted as it was, it barely budged, but eventually she yanked it hard enough to slide it open enough for a slender body to get through. Immediately the pair was assaulted by the overwhelming stench of decay: clearly the generator had died a long time ago, and whatever was left inside had long since rotted. Sally leaned in to see if anything was salvageable, and as she did, Oilive finally saw his chance for revenge. He closed his eyes and planted his foot directly into Sally’s back, sending her tumbling into the darkened walk-in and throwing his full weight against the door. It slammed shut like a vault, and Oilive ran for his life.
Inside, the stench was even worse and the darkness absolute. Sally could feel bile rising in the back of her throat as she felt around for a switch and felt only soft things that squished under her fingers and the motion of many tiny bodies that scattered wherever she moved. She was trapped here, maybe forever, and she would die and be eaten by bugs and Jack would never know where she was and all her friends had abandoned her and she couldn’t ever escape and that little shit Oilive had made a fool of her and oh god she couldn’t breathe couldn’t see couldn’t feel anything what was that moving where is Jack where is Robin where is my mom I don’t want to die here–
Robin and Max heard a loud noise behind them, but didn’t think anything of it as they knew Sally and Oilive had gone to check out the freezer. Meanwhile, they had been slowly making their way through the maze of corridors in the back room. Here, among overturned shelves and collapsed walls, Robin began to sense that things were not as safe as they originally though. There was a presence they couldn’t exactly see, but everything around them seemed to shimmer and bend in weird ways, like looking out over asphalt on a hot day. It wasn’t right, and Robin had long since learned to trust their gut feelings when things weren’t right. Grabbing Max, they slowly walked back out, exactly the way they came, back into the main store. When they saw that Sally and Oilive had not returned, they went to the freezer and found it sealed tight.
The first crack of light as the door opened made Sally want to cry with relief. The second made her want to cry with shame as she looked down at the various cuts and cigarette burns on her arms. There was one still smoldering on the inside of her right wrist when they found her, and she hurriedly crushed the cigarette underfoot as she rushed out into the store, brushing beetles out of her hair and wiping the rotten meat juice from her hands. She didn’t hear Robin ask where Oilive was. She didn’t register that they had encountered something weird in the back of the store. She swung the bat into an empty lottery display, spraying shattered glass into the street as she stepped out of the store, hatchet held tight in her other hand.
The sun was beginning to set, and Oilive was nowhere to be found.
Check back shortly for the next session, where we’ll wrap up the material in the Quick Start Guide and perhaps begin digging into the lovely content of Fleur Du Mall, as the children begin their attempt to return to the sanctuary of Libreté.