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.

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.


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 Dee Sanction Blurb

Francis WalsinghamI have been tinkering with this. I suspect it will change again.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I need to provide a tight and informative intro to The Dee Sanction for my convention games. This is the current draft. It would also work perfectly well for a game system intro (or maybe the back page blurb).

You’re a member of a secret organisation. You have a remit for national security under Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham commands a network of intelligence agents and contacts. Few would guess Walsingham would recruit Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s infamous court magician.

Dee leads a team of operatives who investigate and apprehend cultists and dabblers in the dark arts. You’re a member of that team, but not out of choice.

Somewhere between conscription and penance, you work for Walsingham and Dee under duress. You have faint hope that you can use your talents to earn your absolution and release.

Those around you know something of your background, but know nothing of the darkness. You’re not a good person. You are not blameless. You have done bad things, read awful truths, and owe allegiance to beliefs that do you no favours.

You can see light at the end of the tunnel. If only you can outrun the shadows of your past…

Part of that needs to be the background to events. What’s happening, why, and how did your character get involved. This seems to cover the bases for the moment.

Given I’m running another playtest in a little over a week, I need to get this down, along with the focussed crunch overview. Pardon me if I think out loud.

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!

Signs of Treachery

hope-or-no-hopeOne aspect of play in 214 revolves around the seamy business of corruption, deceit and treachery. Sometimes, the end justifies questionable means to secure certain success.

In Complex 214, you may choose to improve your chances of success by exploiting a mutation, for example, or in The Dee Sanction, your association with one of many secret societies and cabals that influence events in Europe mean you’re better equipped than at first might appear.

When you face a challenge, you need to roll a 7 for success. Before you roll, you have the opportunity to use one (or more) of your secret abilities to expand the threshold for success. If you exhaust a single card, you move it to the left side of your character card, swivelled sideways. The threshold for success now expands by 1, up and down – so, a single card means you will succeed with a 6, 7 or 8.

The moment you use one of these cards, you open yourself up to scrutiny and the possibility that someone might notice your unexpected and suspicious success.

Once you’ve made your roll, failure isn’t necessarily the end of the challenge. Your colleagues have the opportunity to spend points from their own pools – whether Access or Power – to nudge you toward success.

Whether selfless or selfish in their intentions, if they spend enough points they can then take a Success Counter. However, before they do that they have another option. You still have your success, but they uncover a piece of Incriminating Evidence (or more than one if you actually exhausted more than one special card). The GM hands out a little black token, or other marker, to indicate the presence of this compromising information.

These little black tokens sit next to your character card until you reach a point in the adventure when your team might contact home. At that point, the number of tokens might well spell your doom – the form of which depends on the version of 214 that you’re playing. Nevertheless, it won’t bode well in matters of advancement or trust. In a one-off, it will be a determination of basic success; in an ongoing game, evidence will slow your development and, most likely, drive blood feuds and further distrust within the group.

This mechanic means you can have a means to uncover and assign mistrust and bad behaviour, without worrying too much about keeping track of the detail. No need to pass secret notes across the table or go into play stalling detail about the discovery. One of the team has seen evidence of your misdeeds – and you would do well to check yourself in future.

Playtest Eventing

IMG_20141011_131147419While I have been tied up with matters technical for the last week or so, I have had the opportunity to commit myself to some playtest games at upcoming events. I’m certain this will sharpen my interest in getting more low level playtesting done in the meantime.

While I’ll be attending Furnace in Sheffield, next week end, I will not be running any games – although, I might take something 214 along just in case I have the chance come evening time.

The following month I’ll be at IndieCon for three days (of the four day event). IndieCon, sited at Hobourne in Dorset, on the south coast, runs between 6th – 9th November. I’m there partly to assist with All Rolled Up, but also to run games and catch up with folk.

I will be running sessions of Complex 214, The Dee Sanction and Night’s Black Laundry – though not necessarily in that order. The first two will be playtest sessions for 214, while the NBL session will use my The Laundry/Gaean Reach mashup of the Gumshoe system. As they all use card-based character generation, that will be my focus over the next few weeks. I already have the set prepared for NBL, but only a few for C214 and none for TDS.

All being well, I might even squeeze in a game of Advanced Fighting Fantasy (AFF) – but, we’ll see how the weekend pans out.

Come December, we then have the new and enlarged Dragonmeet to attend. That’s Saturday 6th December at the ILEC Convention Centre.

I will be running a session of Complex 214 – though a different one to the IndieCon adventure. There’s a possibility I might have players attending who have played the previous session, so I had best be prepared. Also, it doesn’t make sense to playtest with the same adventure every time, as that isn’t really giving the system a proper run. I want to stretch my legs and try different approaches.

I will also be running a game of AFF that afternoon – as the game I run intentionally aims at just a 90 minute session. I will, however, look to vary this a little also – as I quite like the idea of having quick, drop-in style games suited to filling a partial slot of even doubling up in a big one.

All very busy – so, I need to get this computer/web stuff sorted and get on with it.


Complex 214The 214 system is the heart of both Complex 214 and The Dee Sanction, games of suspicion, paranoia and intrigue in very differing settings.

Complex 214 takes places in a world of dystopian certainty. Tales of a dystopia driven by fear, bureaucracy and a low level of life expectancy.

Born from vats, trained to fill roles with a minimum level of ambition and competency, you live to work and serve the community first and foremost.

You have been biologically force-grown to a purified and protocol cleared template – you will not have any Mutation.

You have been hypno-trained and edutainment led to work within your defined capacity – you will not have any cause to push or apply skills toward suspect and Unethical Ends.

You work hard all day, eat and relax all evening, then sleep through the allotted suspension cycle – you have no time to engage in suboptimal diversions or foster Secret Affiliations.

In The Dee Sanction, you serve as part of the travelling support for Doctor John Dee and Edward Kelley, as they voyage through eastern Europe.

In 1583, court spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham sent an adept gnostic team to Prague on a mission he didn’t commit to public record. These men journeyed through rough and heretic-infested lands engaged in a task of maximum-security in the defence of the realm from increasing Catholic-fuelled aggression.

Today, still engaged in secret activities for Her Majesty’s government, they survive as scholars of fortune. If you have a supernatural problem… if no one else can help… and if you can find them… maybe you can hire… The Dee Sanction.

Both games include specially designed six-sided dice, displaying facets of storytelling intended to support interpretation of failure and success.

In addition, a deck of cards allows you to rapidly and secretively determine the motivations and special abilities that both differentiate and set your character at odds. Your ends and affiliations drive your success but may also kindle the pyre of your downfall. Beware!