Fantastic session last night - one of our best in a while, I think. We started out with downtime wrap-up; fortunately, everyone had about the same amount of material to wrap up, so we spent an hour or so dealing with individual player concerns. Marcus got a brain-dump from us about Filii stuff (religious-social-political organizations), Aniketos talked to some very angry Assamites, and Idir got his mind blown for reasons I can't really describe in a public setting. Then we wrapped up downtime with a narration of the major events of the second half of the downtime. Players seem to be taking to this style of play really well, as it went even better than last week's initatiatory narration (bringing the players into downtime with a sense of what's going on in the world around them). They've started involving each other in their mini-narratives, for one thing, and have gotten less afraid of trying to do stuff that's a little more extreme.
We started session with a bang - quite literally, as the first thing the PCs heard was the statue of Jupiter being hauled out of the great Temple of Jupiter in the forum. This freaked everyone out to an appropriate degree, and when the PCs discovered that it was because the Emperor wanted to celebrate his wedding to Aquila Severa, a young Vestal Virgin, they flipped out even more. The players described the session as "eerie and surreal," which tells me that we've done a really good job of establishing norms within Roman society. We actually made Actaia (and Dan!) speechless, when Actaia discovered that seventy-five priests and senators had been drowned in rose petals. Heliogabalus had a flair for the dramatic!
The best part is, all of the bizarre stuff we introduced is historical. Or, more likely, invented by period propagandists to undermine a teenage emperor who maybe didn't have the best sense in the world. Either way, it's close enough for us! Of course, I'm not entirely sure how we're going to sustain this level of weird-and-crazy for the rest of the story arc. I suspect the next few sessions will be much more political, particularly as the PCs have several suspects for who might be behind what's going on. There was a great deal of discussion as to whether this was supernaturally influenced, and if so, how, and who might be gaining from it. The current consensus seems to be that a) there is ooky going on with the proposed mating of the statues of Mithras and Ta'anit (a Carthaginian goddess) and b) the Filii are behind this all. A close c) is that the Vestals should be Dealt With Firmly. And I love that the PCs are powerful enough that they really can talk about how to deal appropriately with one of the most powerful Families in Rome.
The PCs did a great job of seeing how this plot relates to the directions that they initated during downtime, too - it's clearly related to the Christians, for example, as the fall of Jupiter follows a period of major oppression and persecution, but might not be the best way to ensure future religious freedom. The Filii (particularly the Filii of Mithras) are involved as well, and the Vestals are right in the thick of it. Of course, it's not clear whether the Vestals are victims or victors, but I doubt the PCs will let them get away with much right now. The PCs are mostly (and rightfully!) pissed!
What's going to be hard for me is fleshing out the reactions of a couple of Families who haven't been in the spotlight much. The Family of Eleuthia, for example, has serious influence in Roman religion, which means that this is a pretty strong strike against them. However, they mostly handle things very quietly and mysteriously behind the scenes. I've only established a couple of NPCs and haven't done much with the Family. Now I have to figure out how they'd respond to these events, and introduce new NPCs for the Family without making it seem arbitrary. Yikes!
Still, I'm really looking forward to next session, and I think this is going to be a great story arc. I'm particularly pleased because I'm not in charge of this story arc, which means I don't have to worry about keeping the pace up or figuring out where the story is going overall. I can do what I do best, which is monitor where the players are taking the story and come up with ways to tie their actions back to the main arc of the story, or drop plot/character/ooky bombs on them. I like having the opportunity to improvise and invent on the themes that someone else is focusing on creating. I wouldn't want to do this all the time, obviously, but I like feeling supported as a storyteller. When I'm lead I often don't do a good enough job of delegating story elements to my co-storytellers, so it's nice for me to have some enforced limits. :)
Now, all I have to do is decide who Aniketos has to kill to make Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother happy . . . .