Islam Chipsy / EEK - all of it always on repeat
and whatever you can hear from the passing vespas on the street below.
The idea for the game started when it seemed like we wouldn’t have enough players for regular campaign play, and one newcomer who’d never played an RPG before in his life. With little time to prep, I figured why not run something in a gonzo version of Cairo, an idea I’d been playing around with. Evan Calder Williams has a great post about the concept of Salvagepunk, which I immediately found an affinity with. The nice thing about this of course is that Cairo is already gonzo, and in the past few years we all had a chance to see the actually existing beautiful and terrifying breakdown of law and order, so I just took existing elements of the city and turned them up to 11 with a bit of Mad Max scavenger logic thrown in, jotting some notes. Since we were skirting close to some sensitive issues and memories, and dealing with violence in a setting where we’ve all experience a lot of traumatic violence in real life, I turned it towards the cartoonish/comical, but presumably gluttons for punishment could make this as grimdark as they’d want.
So the party boats that roam the nile blasting music and lights turned into partying pirates. At dusk, huge flocks of fighting pigeons are directed by rooftop conductors fighting strange wars. Young men with architecturally impossible haircuts challenge passers by to sartorial combat. The cell networks inexplicably work but nobody has any credit so scratch cards are the primary currency. The upper class ladies at the Gezeira sporting club would of course make for a perfect matriarchal cult waiting for the cthulhu like return of a STRONG HAND to lead the country back to its golden era. They basically are already. Fuel’s already short and the electricity cuts anyway so all of this was pretty easy to sell without having to posit any extreme catastrophe. The city is already a city of salvage.
When I told the players at the table that we were playing in a post apocalyptic Cairo they said “Oh, so just a normal day, then”. This was as great a response I could ask for because I could also rely on their knowledge of the city’s geography, resources, and social makeup, I’d just have to tell them what’s changed. This allowed for tons of strangeness and surprise, as they wandered through a half-familiar city but completely unsure of what to expect of it.
I ran it using Into the Odd, which is a godsend to the unprepared DM, with a very slightly modified starting kit. Players asked questions throughout, and in thinking of their own post apocalyptic fantasies of the city incidentally contributed to my seat of the pants planning. I used google maps to wing the distances and some of the streets when it needed to be granular, but of course a bridge here might be destroyed and a street there might be an impassable car graveyard, etc. Again, the beauty of using the existing city as template gave me an idea of the types of encounters to be had in different places without having to draw up tables.
The party (A labourer, a petty ponzi-schemer, and an antiquarian-cum-thief) assembled at Gezeira Sporting Club, Cairo’s most elite social space now turned into a doomsday cult of aunties repeating perverse ritualized versions of their normal petty formality, hiring the party (despite the fact that they were not as elegant as the ladies would have hoped for) to retrieve a beautiful chinoiserie tea set that they believed could be used to summon the avatar of Sisi (the long passed president himself merely a cipher for energies from a plane of petty autocracy) and return the country to its imagined nostalgic glory. The tea set was rumoured to have reappeared in the Japanese Gardens in Helwan, a southeastern suburb. The party had an idea where the neighborhood was but had never been to the gardens (neither in game nor meatspace) and the Tantes, god forbid, would never leave their island to go out to such poor places, so they’d be asking directions (always a comedy of errors in Cairo).
The Tantes promising enough phone credit to substantially enrich our poor friends, they took off. thinking they could grab a boat from a nearby jetty and sail their way down the Nile. When they came to the bridge they found a bunch of peacocking youth engaged in a strange pantomime ritual recalling the selfies of yore, and at least one who was more machine than man belting out autotuned raps. The kids insisted on taking “pictures” with the party, who argued their way out of the bizarre ritual and made way to the dock.
They found a boat (an old metro car with a cannon, using this table), barely seaworthy but cheap to hire, and negotiated with the captain to take them downriver. Floating along they thought to go to the Giza Zoo (no stranger to mayhem) and potentially find an elephant because why not storm through the city on an elephant. The elephants unfortunately were skeletons at this point, but they did find some angry tigers, or maybe they were overgrown mutant street cats; some quick moves with a bell brought out the inner kitten in them long enough to deliver a fatal surprise shot on one and scare off the other. The party butchered the poor beast, taking the meat and the antiquarian donning the bloody pelt as a cloak. On the way out they recruited a confused camel, who they unfortunately had to just as quickly say goodbye to as the boat wouldn’t take the extra weight.
Moving further downriver, they started to hear the tinny beats of mahraganat tunes and sputtering of a diesel motor. The captain and crew stiffened up knowing that a party boat was gaining on them. The players rallied the boatmen, and decided to lay an ambush, hiding behind the pier of a bridge and taking on the party pirates in close quarters, using a khamaseen-in-a-can arcanum to help them board. Bloody combat ensued and both crews quickly lost their nerve as the PCs commandeered the party boat in the melee. The angered metro-boat captain fired a couple cannon shots as the party sped off, but they bounced harmlessly across the hull.
Running low on fuel, they steered towards another dock attached to a fancy cafe full of people eating enormous “mixed” grills, where they were brusquely asked for their reservations. As two PCs argued with the waiter who seemed increasingly intent on having them for lunch, another snuck off to a nearby gas station and traded some phone credit they’d found on the pirates for a jerry can of fuel. Shaking loose from the maitre d’, they made it to Helwan, only to realize (much to my surprise as well) that the Japanese gardens were deep in the neighborhood, a couple hours’ walk.
Marching through the neighborhood they heard stone rumblings and kept seeing strange movements in the buildings. They’d known that Helwan used to have medicinal hot springs, replaced by concrete factories long ago; it seems the springs had been bubbling back up and perhaps doing something to the stone, and just as they found the gardens a huge golem-like creature made of rebar and cement charged at them, a few very lucky shots reduced the thing to rubble, and they scaled the fence and started crawling through.
Inside the gardens it seemed that a monastery had formed, with eclectic bearded monks involved in strange meditations (they were perhaps some other sorts of religious types at one point, but had borrowed from the gardens’ architecture and decor and developed a half-understood cargo-cult buddhism). Sneaking around they found a tea ceremony going on using the very elegant chinoiserie set, which the monks invited the party to, explaining to them that the ceremony was their way of reigning in the dark powers of the tea set. This didn’t dissuade the party, who sought to feed the monks poisoned tiger meat, but when hospitality insisted the guests dine first they fell back on smoke bombs, sand storms and bedlam. Some amazing rolls allowed them to grab the tea set without breaking it (which would have been BAD NEWS) and escape over the walls, dodging poisoned darts until they were in the clear. Discussing the matter at one of their cousins’ houses nearby, they decided that maybe they didn’t want the aunties to have the teaset after all, earning them a new enemy and a horrible burden.