The Princess Deviation

20160820_174218Building up to some more playtesting of The Dee Sanction, ready or not. As mentioned before, the game will use the same basic mechanic of needing to roll a 7, but I’ll be testing new approaches to improving the chances of success.

Characters track their physical and mental condition with a Wellbeing grid – but all characters broadly have the same capacity to withstand harm. I may well tinker with the mechanics in their as well, which will be novel as they’re untested as it is.

The adventure is one thing I’m certain of, as I have run it before – but that means I can worry less about the specifics of the story and give more attention to the way the game runs, mechanically.

I also have a degree of confidence in the character generation process, which has worked seamlessly on all occasions I’ve run the game. I haven’t done any expansion of it since the last time I ran it – which should be on my list of things to do.

While The Cthulhu Hack underwent playtesting, that covered a small aspect of the system that varied from the source of The Black Hack. Here, the whole thing comes from somewhere inside my fevered imagination. I hope that in the not too distant future I will get the core of the game down in written form, rather than a pile of written notes and random thoughts inside my head.

Once I’ve got through my game development To Do list, expect draft v1.0 of The Dee Sanction next.


Token Fiddliness

gongfermor-tableWe playtest to make games better. You accept feedback to allow that process to progress and allow a game to grow. I have been running games of 214 for that very reason – and I hope to run more. I have games at Seven Hills and UK Games Expo over the next couple of months, and I really should pop the old Hangout cherry and run a few games online (but, overwhelming introversion and general shyness continue to plague my good intentions in this regard).

Anyway, one piece of feedback from the games at Concrete Cow came from professional Angel Summoner, Steve Ellis:

Good fun, reasonable system with a bit of token fiddliness (and no real use for Penance).

I’m happy to break that sentence down, as it holds considerable feedback for such a scant array of words.

Good Fun: On the very plus side, the adventure itself provided enough entertainment to keep five players engaged for a 3-hour slot. I have now run The Holy Wax Infant of Prague on two occasions, and I’ve touched on it before – a nice little sandbox where the actions of the player characters determine the course of the adventure.

Reasonable System: I like any feedback on the system that doesn’t entirely slate it! I know that it needs work, so if I can get from A to B without too many slips, I can say “Good.” I have been listening to all the feedback, although it will always take time for me to take it onboard and do something constructive with it.

I want to find a better system, for example, to handle occasional combat. The game isn’t about fights, but they will happen – and right now the system really doesn’t do anything. The focus on narrative means that I can tell you how or why things go for or against you, but the outcome can get a bit fuzzy. I’m inclined to opt for some kind of vaguely realistic injury system. But, I did say, “occasional combat” – and the fact it doesn’t happen often means I’m inclined to work on it later when I’m trying to fill out the gaps.

A Bit of Token Fiddliness: I used narrow character sheets for this event, rather than whole pages. The counters pooled above the line, the character cards below. I’m increasingly feeling that I can find a better way to handle the counters. I think I may experiment with both a team pool mechanic or something finite and personal, but singular. By that, I mean one pool of tokens per character, rather than the current three.

Right now, we have Power, Prestige, and Penance for The Dee Sanction. These represent your ability to drive toward success through personal ability, association with influential organisations, and engaging in beneficent teamwork, respectively. You draw on the first two pools to directly tweak dice rolls, while the third pool starts with tokens and loses them whenever you selflessly help someone else.

Adjusting other people’s rolls costs 2-for-1 on Prestige, 1-for-1 on Power – because it’s easier to assist with success yourself than expect your contacts to help others.

Adjusting your own roll costs 2-for-1 on Power and 1-for-1 on Prestige – because the roll represents your best effort, so applying more personal expertise proves a lot harder than drawing on the good will and influence of your contacts and associations.

The tokens represent a resource to allow you to drive success when it matters, help team members when they need it, and allow you to look good helping them out. It could well work with a single pool, but, in a way, I wanted to stay away from something that just looked like another Fate / Hero / Force / Whatever mechanic. The single pool of tokens to be heroic when it matters has been done – a lot. I wanted something a little different.

I will have to ponder on this one.

No Real Use for Penance: Well, there is – but some games it comes across strong and others it doesn’t. Penance gives you a reason to help the team. Oddly enough, some groups of players require a carrot on a stick to get them to work co-operatively. In Penance, the characters have cause to assist their companions both to drive success and to look good in the face of critical outsiders. They can redeem their sins and show a willingness to improve in pursuit of a goal of personal freedom.

Possibly, a dozen tokens of three different colours might be overkill. It could be resolved by doing away with the tokens and just have markers on a character sheet to cross out. On the other hand, I might find resolution in a revelation over the pool mechanic.

I might need to take a shower

Skills Don’t Recharge

character-generation-cards-dee-sanctionOne thing that has come from my reading and through player feedback has been a bit of confusion and even dissatisfaction with abilities that recharge. If you know how to do trick shooting, forensically search a room, or break a safe, why would that ability not work every round?

From a mechanical point of view, recharging creates a bookkeeping overhead for player and gamemaster alike. The player needs to remember to shift the card into recharge, and the GM needs to be mindful that it’s happened. Also, what does it mean when a recharging power comes into play passively? If someone has just used an ability and set it to recharge, will they then lack the faculty to spot a detail in the background because their expertise ‘got tired’?

The other thing about the cards and recharging them is that I don’t plan on making the cards mandatory. I want the option to allow for character generation without the cards. The book for 214 will include setting outlines that have tables for the random generation of characters, and I also intend to provide advice on freeform character generation.

That’s more player comments that have presented a clear goal for my writing and development – why cripple a game by making it dependent on a component you might forget?

The game offers cards, but they shouldn’t be mandatory. The game includes dice with little symbols to enhance the story-telling, but if you forget the dice, you can just pick up two 6-sided ones you have spare and use those. Character sheets work just great for organising your game, but you don’t absolutely need them.

If I can make 214 something that you can play with scrap paper, pencils and scrounged dice, all the better. A mechanic and a setting – then get on with playing. Improvise some counters – or just write stuff down – and get on with playing.

Anyway – that means that abilities don’t recharge. If you have a skill, you can use it. On the other hand, you can still find yourself stuck in a recharge-like situation. If you can break a safe, it might take you 30-seconds to complete the task. In the meantime, everyone else could be battling security gargoyles or whatever. The GM will be going three times round the table calculating combat events, but you need to concentrate on opening the safe. You’re not recharging an ability – you’re simply busy.

Practically, the game system allows you to use more than one ability to improve the chances of success. You can use one ability associated with your past career and one esoteric fact gleaned from a book on magickal theory, for example, in The Dee Sanction. In this instance, that’s fine. Still no recharge. You expand your threshold for success by two levels – meaning that you can get a success with a roll of 5 – 9 on two 6-sided dice.

However, if you succeed with a straight roll of 7, you will Stress yourself out – which might have a negative impact later on the in the game. And, if you fail, your team still have the chance to make themselves look great and claim all the glory – reducing their Incriminating Evidence total – when it comes time for the adventure debriefing, or bards tell tales of your groups exploits.

(Yeah, that Stress bit is new and I’m still tinkering with the idea.)

So, abilities, knowledge, expertise – whatever – they don’t need to recharge anymore. They stay on, though using them might take time. Simpler to manage in game, and cuts out any need for analysis paralysis holding you back from using a card now on the off-chance it might be better used next round.

One-off Adventures

English: Stationary bicycle Česky: Rotoped Deu...

I had one of those inspiration moments again last night, though this one took place out in the garage on my exercise bike. Those thoughtful moments alone seem to be a fertile time for interesting thoughts.

Key amongst those thoughts, I have decided to focus on 214 as a system designed primarily to support standalone adventures. While I have no issue with the idea of a campaign, a lot of my personal gaming tends towards one-off adventures. I might run them over one or more sessions, but when the adventure ends we often won’t come back to those characters for a while – or at all.

Equally, when I run an adventure at a convention, I tend to run it again and again with the same set of pre-generated characters.

Why would I want to spend time worrying about campaign play and balance, when I can keep my focus on one-off sessions like this?

At a convention, 214 shines; you have a system for generating new characters quickly with either cards or the roll of a few dice. You can have a session up and running in no time, without the need for a fixed bunch of character sheets.

That doesn’t mean that the game won’t accommodate progression of the setting. For me, that seems to make a lot of sense. You can get the story moving forward and develop that instead, without worrying about the characters. It seems to me that the characters are just a cog in a greater machine, perhaps a bit like grogs in an Ars Magica game.

The characters in 214 facilitate telling a single story in an overall tale. The fight against uncontrolled witchcraft, heresy and magick in The Dee Sanction is an ongoing battle, fought over a period of almost twenty years while Dee retained the ear of the Queen and Walsingham lived. Around 1590, following Dee’s return from Europe and Walsingham’s death, the tale comes to a close. The game picks up specific events and threats to the Crown during that time, but only key characters in Elizabeth’s Court remain constant – the lowly characters in player control come and go, serve their purpose and then fade away.

The stories of 214 are bigger than the characters, but what the characters achieve is not without significance. They attain incremental goals that support the greater cause. They shine like fireflies for a moment, then die. As it happens, I have an explanation for this in game terms, but I’m still working on the details. Each setting will have some consideration of ongoing story and why characters come and go.

Trust me, it all makes sense.

As it stands, when I get to writing up 214 as a system, it will support several story frameworks. Each will include background, portraits of non-player minions and patrons, campaign notes and tables for randomly creating characters. I have several settings in mind, including The Dee Sanction and Complex 214 (the background for which is evolving even as we speak).

More on that in another future post.


Narrative Results

in-the-diceDice in the pair used for Complex 214 and The Dee Sanction have symbols on them, intended to help focus the story. The symbols include: equipment, surveillance/vigilance, access, the system, them, and mutation/magic.

In practice, when you roll the dice initially, the symbol rolled can help understand – plotwise – what helped the challenge succeed or fail. Even if the player rolls a fail and then adjusts it with counters, the symbol applies.

For example, in a scuffle against three thugs in a cluttered room, a fail rolled with the ‘Equipment‘ symbol might suggest the character misses when he stumbles over a chair. On the other hand, a success might indicate the enemy fell over the chair or the character managed to use the guard on their sword to catch and skew the enemies aim before delivering a slash. A success with teamwork could mean that another character shoves a table backward into the path of the enemy causing them to dodge into the oncoming path of your weapon.

In my first game of The Dee Sanction, one player rolled a failure with the ‘Equipment‘ symbol and skidded in a pool of blood catching himself on the furniture. In the game this weekend, a character failed a roll to glean information from bar clientèle with a ‘Them‘ result, which meant they didn’t get any useful information, but their enquiries led to someone, looking mildly suspect, slipping out of the bar, probably off to inform an interested party.

It worked well enough that, after a short while, the players started referring naturally to the symbols themselves. I have them referenced on the character sheet – with a brief word of explanation – but, I think, a little more obvious urging and guidance should have them flavouring the narrative themself. The die isn’t the be-all-and-end-all; the symbols provide a nudge as a tool for story advancement, not a rod for the players’ backs.

As mentioned yesterday, with the introduction of the new Incriminating Evidence mechanic, the teamwork dynamic and counter economy clicked in well. The session felt like it worked well and the feedback at the end seemed to carry that feeling. That the players engaged with the system and each other – despite being relative strangers at a convention – made for a very positive experience. Obviously, I remain keenly aware that I have a long way to go – but, this made me feel more confident I’m going the right way (in some measure) with both adventure and system.