The Me in Team

IMG_20141011_131147419Teamwork. What is it good for? That’s a tough one.

In the session of The Dee Sanction I ran at Dragonmeet on Saturday, I found the teamwork dynamic of the group worked quite well. When someone faced a challenge and they rolled outside their success threshold, the team generally jumped in to help. Once they understood their role – as the first call for assistance after a failed roll – they got involved whenever they could.

The opportunity to dump a point of Incriminating Evidence whenever you helped provide some definite incentive. I didn’t have to remind anyone at all about the mechanic. Actually, the only time I mentioned it happened when people got too enthusiastic and tried to get rid of their own when they spent pool points. You can’t impress anyone by simply helping yourself.

Discussing the mechanic after the game, I found two opposing views. That was interesting.

On the one hand, when I explained the reason for the mechanic, a player seemed surprised that it had been needed at all. Why would I need to introduce a mechanic to get people to work together? I explained that in two previous games teamwork had not been that important – indeed, they led to the revelation that changed the Incriminating Evidence mechanic.

Later feedback found another player liked the mechanics that emphasised teamwork, or even roleplaying. He saw it as a way to get around situations where, for some reason, the characters don’t like each other or don’t have a reason to help. That’s definitely the reason I introduced it. I have no issue with players running their characters with personal agenda that challenge or oppose the will or purpose of the group; I do want them to contribute to the greater cause, however, and not solely drive the story toward fragmentation or failure.

The teamwork mechanic means that all players have a reason to get their characters involved, even if – in the end – they have the worst possible intentions for doing so. For the time being, the mixed feedback probably suggests that the mechanic does what it must without negatively impacting the game. In a game where the team works well, the mechanic just runs in the background. Where the cooperation struggles, the mechanic provides a vital impetus to get everyone on the same side – even if they do it for selfish ends.

Playtesting at Dragonmeet

Statue of Infant Jesus of Prague (copy) with g...

Dragonmeet 2014 at the ILEC Conference Centre saw me running another playtest session of 214. I ran The Dee Sanction setting using a new adventure called “The Holy Wax Infant of Prague“. I had five players and a table in the open gaming area (where I had the opportunity to build my own table).

I think it likely I’ll post more than once about this session as I consider it a little more and have the time to ruminate. For my own part, I had a bigger adventure in mind than I could fit into the time available, so it definitely didn’t feel “whole” to me.

Part of that came down to the confusing arrangements of the gaming area for the event – where for the first half hour I – and other GMs – spent quite a while telling people they’d come to the wrong area. I’m not certain we helped much – as we found out later we’d directed them to the wrong other place.

Anyway – as I sold the premise as a game about investigating the unknown, the magickal and the supernatural, I needed more of those. The way the adventure panned out, it turned out to be a far more mundane investigation of wrong-doing. That’s all well if you’re running the game and want a change of pace, but for a convention game I need to run something that showcases what I feel the game’s about.

It didn’t feel like it went badly. While we had a few real world distractions, the players remained engaged and worked together to fathom the mystery of the wax infant, the monks and conflict in a north Moravian valley.

The best feedback I had at the time related to the character cards. I posted about a minor redesign, so those saw play for the first time, including handy new name generator at the top. The feedback suggested these cards provided a rather neat way to quickly create and encapsulate a character from which players could then spin off their own slant.

The talents and expertise listed, by and large, gave a good spread of abilities with little overlap. One player queried whether you could use more than one card to influence a roll – and I said yes. However, the feedback suggested that this would likely be very difficult given the ability spread. On a rare occasion, a real focus of very narrow expertise might allow a player to do this, but most not.

Generally, a good session. Could be cleaner and better suited to showcasing the setting, but the game mechanics seemed to work well. I did rush the end a bit, so I didn’t give the right level of in-game respect for those characters who had redeemed themselves through discarding Incriminating Evidence. I don’t think anyone managed to get down to zero, but at least one player got damned close. On the other hand, another characters acts of atrocity against persons of “the Church” probably garnered them a few fresh black marks against their name and reputation.

It’s In the Cards

sample-dee-sanctionI’m running a session of The Dee Sanction at Dragonmeet (visit the website to discover more) in London this weekend. The morning session, somewhere in the big new Ilec Convention Centre. Don’t ask me – I’m sure someone will point you in the right direction on the day.

Anyway, in preparation, I have redone the cards for the game. I already did it for my Complex 214 game. One criticism of the old cards was – well, they might have been a bit tough to read. I use a serif font and it was a bit on the small side.

I have made the font bigger. Oddly, the cards have got smaller. It all seems to work out.

The existing features of the card show the title (capitalised and bold), a brief description, and then two or three suggested traits. I’m willing to consider other inventive options should the player wish to conjure something appropriate up and sell it to me!

On top of the size changes, I have added a couple of extra features. One is a little grey circle with a letter in it. Each player should end up with an A, B and C – indicating their prior profession, the magickal text they have read, and the society they belong to (or did).

The other feature, suggested names for the period. Rather than have the players flounder around thinking up a period appropriate name, each card has a male and female option suggested. With three cards, you have six suggested names. If you’re still struggling, the core rules will have suggested names with each setting. I know how difficult it can be sometimes to choose something.

I’m looking forward to trying the game system out with a bunch of new people. They’ll have the chance to play through a brand new adventure, the Wax Infant of Prague.

Inspiration Strikes

hope-or-no-hopeI have written before, probably elsewhere, on the matter of inspiration and the spawning of new ideas. People have different ways of sparking their creativity, or find ideas coming to them in specific situations. It’s that principle that causes writers to keep a notepad by their bed, in case they wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant insight. You have the notepad to hand to ensure that nugget of creativity doesn’t escape you.

I have those moments of inspiration in the shower.

This past weekend, I attended Indiecon – at a holiday park near Christchurch in the south of England. I planned to run three games, two of which would continue my testing of the 214 system. Unfortunately, due to some administrative shenanigans, I found my first two sessions duplicated and ended up running an additional fourth session on Saturday evening.

One key achievement of that evening session – where I ran the PARANOIA adventure ‘Stealth Train‘ with 214 mechanics – came from one player’s efforts to stay out of the action and accumulate copious notes on the misdeeds of colleagues. It occurred to me, while in the shower, that my game system needed to have a means to get people to indulge in teamwork AND erase their sins in the process by making others look less capable.

The analogy occurred to me of the zombie horde and the two survivors running for their lives. The survivor with the best chance of survival doesn’t need to outrun the zombies – he just needs to keep ahead of his colleague. I needed that character hiding behind the vending machine scribbling notes to come out, help the team, and just come out looking better than them. He needs to visibly contribute to the success of his team more often than the least of them – that’s all. To do that, he needs to spend more points than them – and in the mechanics of 214, that’s why team get to spend pool points before the person taking the challenge.

The solution, therefore, comes by starting all characters with Incriminating Evidence tokens. I established in the background for the game that they have plenty to be guilty about. So, if I give them 5-points of Incriminating Evidence at the start of the game and a player character can only lose a point by aiding in a challenge spending their own points they have a reason to help. You make yourself look better at the expense of the person who initially failed their roll and come out smelling of roses.

In a one-off con game, success comes by ending the session with the least number of Incriminating Evidence tokens in your pool. I still have to ponder the significance of emptying your pool in a long term game.

The final morning of the con, I managed to miss the start of roll call for the early game – which meant my game dropped to the bottom of the pile. By the time I arrived I found my 5-player signups had dwindled to 3 players – but, that may well have been for the best. The gaming area had quite a background noise level the previous day and with a lot of people around the table, it required much shouting on my part to get any information across. Fewer players also meant I could concentrate on getting the challenges in and engage the mechanics in progressing the story.

With new Incriminating Evidence mechanic in place, my session of The Dee Sanction went very well indeed. It ran to exactly 3-hours in length and ended with the character coming out victorious and Queen Elizabeth saved. The players provided good feedback – and specifically picked out the Incriminating Evidence mechanic as a good way to foster the counter economy and general teamwork.

I could see they had an interesting time unravelling the investigative conundrum as well. The adventure ran a little differently to the previous occasion at my local gaming group, partially due to their valuable feedback and also due to a different tact from the Indiecon team. I will take the output from both of these sessions and feed them into both the adventure design and the mechanics of the game.

A weekend (and a shower) well spent.

Quick Thoughts on Last Night’s Game

circumstance-and-happenstanceI ran The Bell’s Toll over the course of two short sessions with my regular gaming group. I have asked them for feedback on The Dee Sanction – and I look forward to getting some good stuff over many future sessions.

Generally, the adventure seemed to work. I think the premise generally works in principle as well. I need to give some consideration to fleshing out a little of the detail and making succinct notes on clues. Short, pithy notes for adventures like this would be perfect, and a necessity for smooth running.

Also, when I turn this into a supplement/book, I think I’ll have a string of random names appearing in the margins or footer. Having these immediately to hand and in full view would be supremely useful for improvisation. You can spot a name, circle it. Make a quick note of the who, how and why. Whatever.

I found myself occasionally stumbling coming up with a flavourful name because I didn’t have the table right in front of me. With this, you could just look down and choose one – or flick to a random page.

One thing that definitely struck me at the end of the game was that it didn’t end with a battle or combat. The wily players managed to pool their professional skills and suggest they could use materials available to concoct something equivalent to tear gas. Taking the improvisational cue of ‘Yes, and…’ as the preferred option, I ran with it.

Why not? In a game that has largely involved investigation and a little drama, why would it end with a fight? In this case, it ended with a bang, some tears and a final gasp to cleanse the dark magic.

For some reason, this felt wrong and right. I could feel the cogs inside my head turning wondering whether a conclusion without a fight would be the right way to go. The adventure did have a conclusion – though again, how conclusive should a procedural investigation be? In the real world, catching the bad guy doesn’t deliver a full stop. He’ll stand trial, and he might yet get off on a technicality, with the assistance of a good lawyer, or through a plea bargaining… something like that.

The team found the culprits, defused the threat, and arrested an extra accomplice for good measure. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Favourite revelation of the night concerned Effect Counters. When you succeed, you turn over a counter. I had 6 – four with a value of 1, two with a value of 2. For whatever reason, the group kept turning over the low value counters, chipping away at the enemy rather than cutting them down with speed and efficiency.

Anyway – someone asked, why isn’t there a counter with a value of 4?

The system is called 214 – where’s the 4?

It made sense. Indeed, adding a seventh counter with a value of 4 means that the Effect Counters match the game system AND drawing a 4 has the same chance as rolling a 7 on 2 six-sided dice. It makes sense – and that 4-value counter becomes a bit of a critical hit option that could sway a challenge in a devastating way.

The Counter Economy

tools-of-the-tradeWhen I ran my playtest session of The Dee Sanction this week, I handed out a bunch of counters – but, by the end of play, not many had moved from their starting position.

I can see why – I do need to more firmly state the existence of challenges and, therefore, the need to roll dice… and in turn, the need to adjust and spend counters to ensure success.

Challenge + Dice = Counter Economy

Achieving success means spent counters. Driving success or suffering failure can mean all sorts of movement in pool sizes.

Essentially, the mechanic around the counters currently breaks down that you can:

1. Spend them to help yourself
2. Spend them to help others
3. Lose them when you fail in a challenge against an opponent
4. Lose them if you choose to ‘take the hit’ for someone else
5. Gain them if you choose to selfishly help someone
6. Gain them if you do something spectacular, funny, etc.

We saw only a little of the first two, because we didn’t roll many dice. When we did, they got spent – but I didn’t reinforce the fact that those pools have another purpose… they’re the difference, in some measure, between life and death. That neatly leads on to…

Losing a challenge (3.) could mean combat or it could mean getting hurt, being imprisoned, falling foul of bureaucracy, or whatever. It represents the physical and notional damage suffered by someone at the sharp end of a failed roll – and when you have zero pool points left you’re out of action. That might mean dead if someone then chooses to deliver a coup de grace or you’re out of touch with anyone who might help you recover. It could mean imprisonment or getting snared in red tape.

If you have acquired Incriminating Evidence – which we didn’t touch on in this session either – you can buy it off by taking damage (4.) instead of another team member. I touched on that in more detail in my recent post on cancelling out your guilty secrets.

If you help someone by spending points to get them a success, you might choose to withhold the reward of that success for yourself (5.) to increase your own personal power or access. It’s a bit like taking the credit for the success of others. I also covered that in a post, on selfish success.

Right at the end of the list (6.), you have the chance to earn points as a reward. For example, one player in this session did an excellent turn with the creepiest tone of voice since Doctor Hannibal Lecter chatted amiably with Clarice Starling.

Between these options, I would expect to see the player pools expand and contract throughout the game, forcing tough decisions in the mid or late game, and more consideration of the value in teamwork spending. One of the players commented on his expectation about this – and it comes as a fair point. The character sheet held on to a largely unused collection of counters that just sort of cluttered the play surface without serving much purpose.

As I mentioned yesterday, I need some tight pre-game patter to highlight how the mechanics work. Not knowing that the counters represent some measure of your livelihood devalues them. I have an inclination to make better use of the white space on the current character sheets to included a few more pointers and brief guides. A note on the Power and Access pools about ratios of expenditure to influence success, for example, would be a good addition – and some mention that if Power + Access = zero or less, you’re in a lot of trouble!

No Guilt Is Forgotten

power-and-accessI have to make time to run sessions of the system without worrying too much about the finer details. However, preparation for All Rolled Up attendance at events has been a priority. Now, I hope to have the chance to pick up some slack.

I like Incriminating Evidence as a way to hold stuff against someone – and I’m good that the counters cut specific records or details. The players all know their characters have guilty secrets. Who discovered them and how they found out doesn’t need to have a specific answer. Ultimately, someone knows something that you wished they didn’t.

Under those circumstances, I suspect it would be a good idea to make amends. It’s occurred to me, for example, that someone with Incriminating Evidence might try to offset their guilt with selfless acts. For example, you might spend a point to take the hit when someone else gets hurt – whether they’re hit physically or struck by reputational dirt, grievous red tape or whatever. If a team mate will take damage to Access or Power, you spend a point of Incriminating Evidence BEFORE they turn over the effect tokens to find out the extent of the damage.

For example, George wishes to have an audience with Prince Reznik to communicate a matter of considerable import. Reznik’s personal advisor, Devit, suspects the information might undermine one of his plans and intercepts George, Maria and Peter. George rolls the dice and gets a twelve, without using any cards to adjust the success threshold. His team aren’t totally sold on the situation and see no advantage in helping, so they don’t spend pool points, and George himself doesn’t have enough to influence the roll.

The sigil on the dice rolled indicates that George has fallen foul of the System and the GM gestures to take an effect counter. Peter impresses his intent to step in and he discards an Incriminating Evidence counter, which George happened to have applied to him earlier. A gesture of good will to win George over, or a shaky hope that they will have a better relationship in future?

The GM turns over the counter and finds a result of 2 Power. Devit sends guards to retain and restrain George. When they appear, Peter steps in the way and attempts to distract them, while George gets away. The guards lose patience and beat Peter up, before giving chase. George won’t get that audience with Reznik today, but he might find another way to get the information to him if he can escape the guards – at least he isn’t locked in some dungeon cell. And Peter’s bruises will heal with time.

To be clear, the fact that the Counter that Peter burned to take the hit for George originally came from George is irrelevant. Once you have Incriminating Evidence Counters in play, it doesn’t matter where they came from. The blemish on your record exists – how you seek to better your reputation and, perhaps, clear your name as a result is entirely separate and non-specific.

On the other end of the spectrum, I see Incriminating Evidence as harmful to advancement. While you have any IE tokens, you can’t improve your character.

Current thinking is that if you complete an adventure with more points than you started, those represent a pool for possible improvement. If you have X Access above your starting threshold, you can spend them to improve a Pool by one point. For a little more, you can take a character card from the development pile – which will be a separate deck specifically intended to support improved expertise. However, if you have IE tokens, you need to exceed your base pool plus those tokens before you’re considered to have an excess. Maybe.

I’m still pondering this one.

Suspicion of Competency

consciously-incompetentThe setting for 214 games assume that all characters have sufficient common skills to survive, but nothing more. They’re not hyper competent superheroes or expert field operatives. They’re just consciously incompetent in most respects. Sometimes they’re more capable, but that expertise exists within the character cards and playing with them can lead to a whole pile of troubles, right?

In the course of play, doing something that isn’t challenging, stressed or time sensitive just happens. If you take a leaf out of reality, most of us will experience a certain measure of the jitters when placed under stress with no time and too much riding on our success. Only in these circumstances should the dice appear.

For example, your character stalks through heavy forest seeking out a suspected camp of bandits. She raises a hand to call a halt to the march of her colleagues and waits for a moment. You ask the GM whether you can hear any calls or sense the presence of the bandits. The GM checks his notes and tells you that after a few moments straining to hear or sense anything you detect a hint of wood smoke. No need for a roll – as you could be dropped into a forest right now and with your untrained senses smell the distinctive odour of burning wood.

On the other hand, when the characters do find the camp, they discover the area in disarray. The tents have been torn to strips, the ground churned up, and the fire extinguished and scattered. Your character wants to know what’s happened here, but that kind of knowledge is anything but common. Your character is a secret member of the Accademia dei Segreti, a ‘scientific’ society that studies the esoteric mysteries of nature. You draw the GM’s attention to this and make a roll – hoping to roll a 6, 7 or 8 for success, or risk the unwanted suspicions of your colleagues.

You always get some form of success when you make the roll – but most times that success doesn’t come about due to ability alone.

  • If you expend a card, you’re drawing on secret knowledge or associations.
  • If a colleague spends pool points, they’re tipping the balance through direct or indirect assistance.
  • If you end up spending pool points, you’re struggling and straining to succeed, putting your well being on the line or pulling in the most obscure favours you can muster.

They’re all examples of success, but the price of that success becomes increasingly drastic and potentially dangerous to your future well-being.

Hot n Cold Running Muse

tools-of-the-tradeI have a vague recollection that Douglas Adams liked taking baths (although, I’m willing to believe that I might be making this up and that it simply got a mention in one of his many books). For me, showers have been proving fertile musing territory.

I don’t recall whether the purpose of baths for Douglas was to excite his muse, or perhaps to offer him solace from impending deadlines (that constantly seemed to trouble and dog his every creative move).

It seems that every time I have a shower, my mental cogs set in motion. This morning, I was cogitating on the business of Incriminating Evidence in 214. I’m trying to decide whether the idea has legs or not in the current form. Right now, it’s the currency of downfall for those who choose to use abilities for suspect ends.

My current tack has been to see it accumulate like reputational damage. If it ever equals or exceeds your Access plus Power, then you suffer a fall – whether demoted, physically punished, or perhaps executed for treason. Yesterday in the shower, I wondered whether it might have potential as a currency to force the adjustment of rolls.

I felt it might be a little like exploiting a weakness for a favour. However, I think this won’t work as knowing something bad about someone doesn’t dissipate once they’ve done something for you. Guilt won’t burn away because the person who knows you’re dirty little secret got a benefit back.

Advancement in the game I currently have down as somewhat experience based and involve spending points to either increase your pool size – and therefore enhance your potential to succeed in challenge and survive conflict – or acquire more cards. More cards will represent additional contacts, questionable abilities, and dubious secrets that you can bring into play to expand your chances of success. They will probably cost three times as much as a pool point, as they expand the success threshold rather than just tweaking your roll result.

The advancement was what occupied my brain this morning. Always in the shower, though. Makes me wonder whether I should be taking more showers! On the other hand, showers might become an excuse not to be spending time playtesting or sat in front of a writing implement getting these ideas and concepts into some solid form.