Archive for Playtest


Mesopotamians is a game I wrote, inspired by the sone The Mesopotamians by They Might Be Giants. It’s part of a charity project by Jonathan Walton to make a bunch of one or two page games inspired by songs and sell those to raise money for charity.

It’s a fun game that was fun to make. Scribus is a pain in the ass, though.

My quick and dirty Over the Edge/World of Dungeons hack

I wanted to play Over the Edge, but I can’t stop tinkering with the mechanics of the game. So I combined Over the Edge and World of Dungeons to make my quick and dirty Over the Edge/World of Dungeons hack. It works like this:

PCs have the same traits as normal a normal Over the Edge character, with one central trait and two side traits and a flaw and such. But instead of multiple d6s, traits give you larger sized dice to roll. A superior trait gives you a d10, any regular trait gives you a d8. Narrow traits bump those dice up, giving you a d12 if superior or a d10 if not.

When you roll, you’re rolling against the standard AW derived 2d6 bell curve: 1-6 fail, 7-9 partial success, 10-11 full success and 12+ Critical success system as in WoDu. If one or more traits are applicable, you can replace one or both your 2d6 with the die listed on the trait. So if you have ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ at 1d8 and someone attacks you, you roll 1d6+1d8 and check them against the results table. If you’re also fighting a demon in human form, you could use ‘Parapsychology Student’ and ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ both to roll 1d8+1d8. Your flaw turns a full success into partial success: you can succeed, but it will never be clean or pretty.

Any failure gets you an experience token. Experience tokens can be traded in to add +1 to your roll after seeing the results. A critical success also gives an experience token.

When you’re hurt, you cross off your top (critical) result first. So thereafter, all critical die results are treated as a normal success. Later injuries continue to remove your highest available level of success (regular successes become partial successes, eventually partial successes are failures… or maybe just partial failures?) Particularly deadly harm might cause multiple injuries at once, though I’d let a PC roll some trait like ‘Sturdy as a House’ to reduce that damage. Medical care care restore some or all of that with a decent first aid roll and/or bed care, depending on the injury.

See some pregen characters as well. I’me most pleased with the house that took human form and the voodoo economist.

Playtest: ‘Devil John’ Moulton

Playtest report: The Devil John Moulton

This wound up longer than I meant it to be. Long story short: We playtested another game a few days ago. It went really well. It was horrible and weird and violent and darkly funny and amoral in all the ways the game was supposed to be. (You know, like a Garth Ennis written comic or a Quentin Tarantino film.) The PCs rode into poor, long-suffering Deadwater Gulch and stirred up a heap of trouble.

The basic premise of the game is that there is a mysterious figure named “the Devil John’ travelling the Wild West, making demonic pacts with anyone who will make a deal with him. He gives the buyer all the power that they want, in exchange for their soul. The PCs all made this deal for one reason or another, and now regret it. So they want to see Devil John dead. They joined together and go from town to town seeking out anyone who made a deal with Devil John. When they find the sorcerer in the town’s midst, they force some information out of the amateur occultist to find where to go hunt Devil John next.

So: the PCs are bad, bad people. But they’re trying to stop a person who is worse than them.

Character creation went really well. The basic chargen system works like playing the board/card game 7 Wonders, or drafting decks in a Magic: the Gathering tournament. Everyone gets a hand of cards, each of which has a piece of background for the character, a question to answer and a mechanical effect (usually an increase in the size of a trait’s die, sometimes other effects.) Choose one from your hand and pass the rest of the hand to the left. Then pick a new card from the new cards that you receive, and repeat.

The players all really seemed to like this aspect of the game, and it seemed to make cool, appropriate characters. Everyone mentioned how they liked the cards that I had written, which meant that they had to choose between different interesting aspects of the character as they went. One of the player, Mojo, mentioned that later on he was picking cards in part based on the mental image that was forming in his head concerning

(The game’s core mechanics are drawn from Cthulhu Dark, but expanded upon greatly. Instead of just tracking an escalating d6 for Sanity, you have four traits. Those four traits are the only dice you can ever roll. Each can be rated in a different die size, and each one has a specific unhappy ending for your character waiting in store. So eventually your ratings in the traits will go down and reach one of the four endgames. You want to roll lower than your opponent, which means that any die has a chance of winning a roll. But it also means that your d4 traits are most effective but you can only use it once or twice before reaching the endgame. Your larger die size traits you can use quite often but they will not be as helpful. This also lets you control the length of gameplay somewhat: more cards to start with gives large dice which makes for a longer game. Fewer cards make for a shorter game. With five cards in a starting hand, most people are rolling d4s and d6s and only occasionally d8s.)

Sneaky bit of game design magic I learned from Fiasco: The players read many of the cards that got passed around, even when they didn’t pick the card. So the rejected cards still helped establish tone and style. This is most important for creating the supernatural elements in the game. If you simply told the players to invent evil demonic miracles, they wouldn’t know what to write and might create genre-inappropriate abilities. But a few of the cards had demonic miracles a player could choose, which helped get all the players understand the sorts of powers they were supposed to create. And sure enough, the supernatural elements the players invented all fit the fairly specific supernatural theme and aesthetics that I hoped for in the game.

Bit that I didn’t predict: three of the four players wanted to play outright bastards, so the ‘Scruples’ cards containing moral obligations wound up being passed on. The fourth player then wound up with two Scruples, and was a relatively decent person who had committed one really bad mistake and then fell in with some really horrible people. This dynamic was very interesting, both the mechanic of card passing (which I should have expected from 7 Wonders) and then the social dynamic of the characters in actual play. I’m interested in playtesting more to see if this is a standard pattern or a weird one-time thing.

After passing the cards a few times, we wound up with four great characters:

Allen the Red-Handed
Probably the most unabashedly evil of the four, Allen is a notorious bank robber who has a trademark of dipping his hand in the blood of his murder victims. He’s done this so many times that his soul is permanently stained red. Allen sold his soul to a demon called “The Laughing Man” who had silver hair and eyes and would appear whenever you were suffering to silently laugh at your misfortune. In exchange, Allen could only be killed by the hand of an individual acting alone, never a group or a natural disaster. He also could carve your name on a bullet and have it strike unerringly. The Laughing Man demand that Allen desecrate corpses to pay back it back for the demonic miracles.

Andre the Bastard
A former robber baron, who lost his fortune on fast women, crooked gambling tables and the unfortunately timed sale of a mine. Andre has sold his soul for the ability to sway the opinions of crowds. (Never individual people, but only large groups.) He sold his soul to a creature called “The Whisperin’ Stranger” whose face was always hidden by the shadow of his wide brimmed hat, and who never spoke above a whisper. When Andre would try to sway the crowds, the Whisperin’ Stranger would walk unseen among the crowd, planting ideas in the heads of people here and there until the crowd became convinced.

Thin Jim
Thin Jim was probably the most decent and sympathetic of the PCs. Thin Jim was also a cannibal, so that says something about the game. Thin Jim had once been riding in the desert when his horse died from a rattlesnake bite. Jim then had to walk out of the desert, starving and dehydrated. Along the way, he encountered another wanderer and Thin Jim decided one man living as a cannibal was better than two dying of hunger. Thin Jim still carried a locket from the slain man, which had a picture of a young woman and a baby. The dead man’s ghost would sometimes whisper to Thin Jim in the night, saying that he was just trying to get home. Thin Jim had bargained with a demon named Hickory, that looked like a solid black clockwork squirrel and had some ability to control time. Thin Jim was given a pocket watch that could turn time back thirty seconds, and the touch of a finger would cause an item to wither and decay as if left in the desert for decades. Thin Jim also had sworn an oath to never tell a lie, which was a problem when the other PCs kept bringing up that cannibalism incident.

Mean Little Anne
Anne had been a low-life criminal, but had been abandoned by her criminal fellows because they decided a tiny little woman wouldn’t be of use to them. So she sold her soul to gain occult power that would help her be a better criminal. Anne could buy and sell intangible goods, as long as both parties agreed. She had already sold off all of her niceness to make her a better shot, which is why she was so terribly mean. Anne could also pass through any opening, no matter how small. she got her magic powers from a demon called Shade, which took the form of a different animal each time but was always in shadows, and always had eyes glowing like the coals of a fire.

So as you can see, the PCs were a gang of terrible, terrible people. Colorful and interesting, but not nice at all.

Town creation was a piece of the game that I was uncertain about, but it seemed to work out just fine. The rules I went with went like this: Starting with the GM, each player picks a question off a list of leading questions and answers it. The GM makes notes and NPCs as you go, and secretly chooses one NPC to have made a deal with Devil John. The questions were designed to make the situation filled with potential conflict and NPCs wanting things from the PCs and stuff for the PCs to mess with. It seems to have worked well enough. The town we created, Deadwater Gulch, had enough problems and NPCs and such to keep the players occupied for the two hours or so we had left.

Deadwater Gulch’s water supply had recently fouled up. Now there was very little drinkable water to be found anywhere in the area. Sheriff Halstead had started rationing the water, and made a rule where everyone coming into town had to pay a gallon of water to enter. The town shopkeeper, “Perfectly” Frank had a secret water source and was selling the water at grossly inflated prices. Everywhere he went, a gang of kids followed, begging for a sip of water.

Perfectly Frank also owned the local mines, renowned for its strange opalescent stones that were sold as a snake-oil cure-all. They were said to cure baldness, sleepiness, wheezing, coughing, typhoid, scurvy, consumption and the gout. Anything except dehydration, really. Andre the Bastard had once owned the mines in this town, but had sold them to Perfectly Frank… ten minutes before the mysterious, magical stones had been found.

(Sidenote: I need to make up a good list of town names and NPC names to use, as coming up with those in the middle of play is difficult.)

So the PCs rode into Deadwater Gulch and started stirring up trouble right away. The sheriff comes out to meet them and demands some water. Almost immediately, the PCs are threatening the sheriff and disrespecting his authority. I momentarily forget that Perfectly Frank’s water selling is supposed to be illegal and under the table, and instead have the Sheriff direct the PCs off to see Frank to buy water and donate it to the town. (In retrospect, this doesn’t get any new water into the town, but it does reinforce the basically corrupt nature of the town’s system.)

The PCs enter the tiny town shop and Perfectly Frank and Andre the Bastard immediately recognize and hate one another. Frank refuses to sell to Andre, though he suggests to Mean Little Anne that he’d sell them the water in exchange for Andre’s magical ability to sway crowds. In the end, Allen Red-Handed provokes the sheriff enough that he goes to get a posse in case this gang of armed thugs starts any trouble. When the posse gets to the corner store, Andre the Bastard gives a speech about how the real injustice in this town is Perfectly Frank hoarding the water. The sheriff feebly protests that the posse was gathered to watch over these murderous outsiders, not to lynch the local shopkeeper. The posse drags Perfectly Frank away by his feet. The sheriff pauses a moment to threaten the PCs and demand they get out of town, then he rides after the lynch mob to try to stop the murder before it happens.

Thin Jim and Mean Little Anne find a few children still hanging around the area, and offer them some of Perfectly Frank’s water. This conversation doesn’t go quite as well as one would hope. Mean Little Anne just wants to kick a kid in the head, and Thin Jim cannot tell a lie once the cannibalism thing was mentioned.But after some child wrangling and the promise of cool, drinkable water, they determine that two of the three kids are useless and send them away. The third kid, Little Timmy, seems to know something about this Devil John fellow the PCs are asking about.

The PCs spend a long time trying to interrogate this eight year old kid. Mostly, the PCs try to scare the kid into cooperating, but they overshoot and the child is simply too terrified to answer the questions. Eventually, some dice are rolled and the PCs increment slightly more toward death but the kid spills some of the beans. About a month ago, he took ill with a fever. And he doesn’t recall clearly, but he saw a strange thin man come to the house and speak to his mother. The next day, his fever cleared up but the town’s water supply fouled up at the same time. The PCs determine that the kid’s mother probably made a deal with Devil John.

They coerce the kid into taking them to meet his mother, but with a cost, complication or consequence. In this case, it turns out that the local lynching tree is right outside the kid’s house. So the sheriff and the lynch mob are all there arguing over what to do with Perfectly Frank. The magic has started to wear off, but not entirely. And people really did resent the rich guy with all the water in town. But the sheriff is arguing they should let him go.

So the gang of outlaws rides up, and Allen decides to just walk up behind the sheriff and murder him. A successful die roll leads to murdering the sheriff in front of a crowd of armed witnesses. Allen tells Andre the Bastard to use devil magic to convince the NPC mob to leave. Andre’s player starts to pontificate, but it is pointed out that he hasn’t paid the Whisperin’ Stranger’s price yet (to cut out the tongue of somebody). Until Andre does so, he can’t use his infernal power. So the mob turns on Allen and opens fire. Allen falls down apparently dead, but the Laughing Man’s sorcery protects him and he leaps back up. Allen rolls again to scare off the entire crowd who were certain he was dead. He succeeds, but I think a couple of his traits are getting close to their endgame. Allen sets about desecrating the sheriff’s corpse to appease the Laughing Man.

Meanwhile, Thin Jim ushered the kid inside so he wouldn’t see the violence going on outside. Inside, Thin Jim finds the kid’s mother and recognizes her as the woman in the locket. He starts interrogating her about Devil John, but she denies involvement. According to her, she sent that evil sorcerer packing rather than endanger her soul. The other PCs filter in and argue with her some. As they are doing so, the window shutters slam shut (despite there being no wind) and weird poltergeist activity starts up around the house. Little Timmy becomes real excited, saying that his dad had finally returned! Just like the shadowy man had promised! It turned out that Timmy had made the deal with Devil John in his fever, to be cured of the sickness and reunited with his father again. (I didn’t decide that Timmy was the warlock in town until halfway through the session. I may make that the actual rule: you decide only partway through the game which NPC made the deal and why. Timmy was chosen because he had a decent enough reason but still was unexpected. The PCs initially thought that Perfectly Frank and later the mother had made the deal with Devil John.)

Now the ghost of Timmy’s dad decides that these intruders were dangerous (after all, one of them had eaten him and the rest spent a good long time threatening his kid.) Because of Timmy’s demonic wish, the dead dad grows in ghost strength from a quiet whisper to a storm of poltergeist activity.

Nobody knows how to fight a ghost, though. Guns won’t work on it, and reasoning certainly gets them nowhere. Andre the Bastard decides that Timmy is the key to this, and that his presence allows the ghost to manifest. So eliminating Timmy will get rid of the ghost.

There’s a moment where everyone stops and looks at each other and thinks “Is he really going to murder a small child, right in front of his widowed mother and the ghost of his cannibalized father?” Andre’s player shrugs and says “well, they don’t call him the Bastard for nothing” and fires.

This does not have the desired effect. I as GM had to decide whether this plan could work or not. I came down on the side of ‘I’m not going to reward the murder of a little kid, even if he *has* sold his soul to Satan.” So instead of dismissing the ghost of the father, it made him much angrier, and he began murdering every PC in the house.

PCs started to run, when Thin Jim looked at his sheet and said “Wait, I can turn back time! I totally forgot I could do that.” Thin Jim then rewinded the previous thirty seconds and tackled Andre to stop him from killing the kid.

The other PCs still decide to split, though, as they still don’t know what to do about the ghost. Thin Jim decides that he has to appease the ghost by repaying what he took from the ghost, and by leaving the father with his family. Jim decides that this means to leave a piece of himself behind, as the father’s flesh has been incorporated into Jim’s body. Jim slices his own ear off and sets it on the table. The ghost seems to be calmed by this and fades away. Timmy and his mother sits, huddled in a corner crying.

As the PCs exit the building, Timmy begins yelling curses and says that Devil John rode off towards a town south of Deadwater Gulch. (The PCs succeeded in a final roll against the ghost that I didn’t feel was necessary, what with the Vincent Van Gogh impression and all. So I let them have the piece of information they had come looking for as a reward for incrementally inching closer to death.)

Mechanically, 5 character creation cards meant that one PC was teetering on the edge of death after only a few rolls. Most were down a point or two in most traits. 5 might be the right number for a full length single session game. For character creation, rules explanation and a short session, maybe 3-4 cards? 9 or so for a more campaign length story, I think.

Most traits got rolled by themselves or in pairs. Never were three or more dice rolled together that I recall.

I totally forgot about a few bits that I intended to do, like having the PCs define rumors and facts about Devil John. Or having scars force rerolls (which I will likely abandon).

PCs were more explicitly evil than I predicted or hoped. That may be the issue that most requires attention and reworking. Or maybe I should accept that as an aspect of the game and design to facilitate that gameplay, which is slightly different than the gameplay I had imagined to begin with.

Overall, the game was really fun and interesting and cool in a way that doesn’t exactly match up with any other game I can think of. The players all seemed enthusiastic about the game.

Nameless Horror version 0.2

nameless horror

I made an update to my old nameless horror game. In the process, I expanded the rules several times over. But it plays much better now!

Nameless Horror 0.2 core rules
Nameless Horror Scenarios
Yes / No cards and Questioner card

I haven’t substantially changed the oracle deck, so that’s still cool to use.

Playtest: Ghost Lines Dark

We played Ghost Lines Dark last night. There were, of course, a few kinks to get worked out about how Cthulhu Dark relates to Ghost Lines. But it was a lot of fun and seemed to work over all.

I stole Judd’s idea of having the PCs be a crew of new recruits mentored by Orlence, a legendary master bull who was too drunk to operate. This nicely gave a reason for a bunch of new recruits to all be working a train line without much supervision.

I also used the Ghost Lines map that john posted on his blog. They didn’t get very far, so it didn’t come up much. But I liked having a bunch of places names and an idea how things were arranged. (I think that the “add a fact to the map” mechanics I threw into Ghost Lines Dark would come up more in a multi-session campaign rather than a single session playtest.)

We had three PCs:

Adric Dunvil who acted as their Spider (an Iruvian, he was also skilled as a Rook I think) old friends with Caul, afraid of rats after a terrible experience with a swarm of ghost rats in Bright Harbor.

Caul Hellyers, Iruvian Owl and Rook. He hadn’t actually passed the final exam for the bull training, but a kindly master bull named Pholonia gave him a passing mark anyway. (My GM failure: Pholonia should have been the drunk master bull that they were operating under. Gotta reuse NPCs as much as possible.)

Aran Laudius, their Sevoran Anchor, addicted to fermented beetle wings that the brew out in Cullfield.

I decided that much of the electro-rails industry was located in Southpointe. Near the Imperial City, Southpointe was a crossroads city, so it would be a good place to put all the trainyards and such. The PCs had been through some basic bull training but never fought an actual ghost before setting off west, toward the Imperial City.

As the train pulled out of Southpointe, Orlence pulled Caul aside. “Listen, kid. There are some secrets that you don’t want to know about. You know that refrigerated car at the back of the train? Stay away from it.” Then Orlence stomped off to the bar (and was never seen sober again.)

So naturally, the first thing the PCs did was to go back the the refrigerator car to investigate. It was covered in signs saying “Keep Out – authorized Personnel Only.” The car was locked shut, but a few rolls got the door open. Well, not “open”. They couldn’t undue the lock on the door, but they used their electro-hooks to pry the bottom half of the door apart from the jamb enough that they could fit through with their encounter suits. Two bulls went inside while one stayed out to be lookout and keep the train’s porters from asking too many questions.

Inside were several dozen chest freezers, about the size of a coffin. Knocking the padlock off of the nearest one, the bulls found a human body (male, adult, naked) frozen in ice. The Owl’s spirit goggles didn’t show any soul inside the body, so it was either dead or a Hollow. Checking the corpse over determined that the body was still apparently alive.

Somebody was secretly transporting dozens of Hollow bodies into the Imperial City. (In retrospect: Perhaps I should have made more clear that this was likely illegal, The bulls were curious about this but didn’t worry about how the Hollow got there or where they were going.)

By this time, Caul was on lookout duty and saw an approaching ghost with his spirit goggles. The boys climbed up onto the top of the train and headed up the front of the train to confront it. Aran quickly tried to arrange the body so it looked like the Hollow tried to escape on its own. This was about as convincing as it might be in the ten seconds he took to do so.

Caul’s player asked “So what does this ghost look like?” and I natural responded “That’s a great question. What does this ghost look like?” The ghost, it turned out, looked like an elderly man with a long, animated beard and no long. He was stretched out and twisted in odd ways, so that he was over nine feet tall and had impossibly long arms. Asking a second player for a detail, the spirit inspired pain and nausea in the stomachs of anyone that looked at him. I asked the third player “What is still surprisingly human about this ghost?” The only part of the ghost that wasn’t horribly twisted were his eyes. Old ghost man had kindly old grandfather eyes, that just wanted to be close to the PCs, even as his hideous gnarled claw hands ripped at their encounter suits.

Aran, their anchor, was the last to leave the refrigerator car, but he tried to get the ghost’s attention. A roll (risking mental trauma, naturally) got the ghosts attention. I wasn’t clear from the original game exactly how Anchors gets the ghost to focus on them (just that their job was to withstand the ghost’s attentions). Aran decided to get the ghost’s attention by pretending to recognize it as a long lost relative. “Uncle Bob! I’ve missed you!” (Side note: “Bob” is not on the name list. This was a deliberate decision on Aran’s player’s part. Bulls, you see, never nickname ghosts with names that have been cleared. Sharing a name with a ghost is bad luck; it connects the spirit to you. So if you have to name a ghost, you give it a weird or archaic name that no one uses any more. Like “Bob”.)

Aran’s excellent roll and some trauma taken meant that the ghost was laser focused on him. It flew right through Caul (Harm roll, didn’t result in any Harm though) on the way back down the train to where the Anchor was. Caul slashed it with a lightning hook as it went by, and the ghost’s sad old man eyes turned to look at him in confusion. “Why are you hurting me when I just want to be close to my loving family?” the eyes seemed to ask. “Uncle Bob” hugged onto Aran and caused him some more trouble while Adric stood back. He was playing it safe, letting the other two risk themselves against the ghost (and it showed: in the end, Adric had suffered the least out of the three). Adric threw a spirit bottle underneath, yelled for everyone to get back and launched a lightning-web. An excellent roll caught the ghost perfectly. The clear glass bottle was now full of swirling green-grey fog. As you watched, occasionally those sad, confused eyes would drift past and look at you pleading to be freed.

The bulls were, naturally, jubilant after bagging their first real ghost. They decided to hunt down Orlence and show off their good work. They stormed off through some public bits of the train, showing off their full spirit bottle. (If Ghost Lines is steampunk Ghostbusters, then this would be the “We came! We saw! We kicked its ass!” moment in the hotel lobby. A brief moment of self-congratulation at how destructive and successful their first real job went.) Orlence was getting drunk in the train car with the bar. As the PCs walk in, Orlence is arguing with the bartender, demanding more alcohol. As Orlence slumps onto the table, Adric plops the spirit bottle in his hand. Orlence only realizes that it isn’t alcohol only when those sad, dead eyes stare up at him.

Congratulatory drinks all around, celebrating their first bagged ghost. I realized then that I had no idea what the bulls do with a ghost they caught in the spirit bottle. Taking a ghost into the city wasn’t allowed, obviously, but just throwing it back into the poison fog seemed strange and wasteful. Orlence drunkenly explained that some bulls smuggle ghosts into town and burn them to make electroplasm. Make some money on the side. Totally illegal but it pays better than their real job.

Somewhere in this conversation, we got talking about the ghosts in the wilderness. Someone said that they were glad that they’d never end up like Uncle Bob. Orlence told them about another bull that he saw when he was an apprentice. Guy fell from the train outside Duskwall. Next time Orlence worked the Duskwall line, they had to clear the bull’s own ghost from the line. That, he explained, was the end fate waiting for all of the bulls.

The bulls don’t ask about the Hollow bodies on ice, but Caul gets an idea. He gets wondering what happens when you put a ghost into a Hollow body. He hopes to be able to resurrect Uncle Bob once more. Caul heads back to the refrigerator car. He hasn’t explained his plan, but Adric and Aran are curious about the Hollow, so they follow.

Civilians don’t like to go out into the poison fog, so nobody’s been in the refrigerator car. The Hollow is still where they left it. Without saying a word, Caul upends the bottle into the Hollow’s mouth. Suddenly, the Hollow’s eyes flip open, with the same confused, tragic look as the ghost had. The body starts trying to claw its way out, but it is still stiff from being frozen and can barely move.

Now that they have made a zombie, no one is sure what to make of it. Adric is a bit shocked. Aran is the most horrified. This is when he explains how death is the ultimate trauma you can go through. When your spirit is ripped from your body, it permanently damages your psyche. “Aran, why do you know this?” Adric asks. Aran explains that he was technically dead for five minutes during a training accident and his spirit had separated from his body, making him technically a ghost possessing his own Hollow body. This trauma was why Aran was now an addict and an Anchor: his near death experience gave him a natural affinity for ghosts. And relevant to their current situation, a spirit that was dead for a few minutes is messed up. A ghost that was dead for years or centuries would never be a functioning human being again. Now the bulls have a real problem on their hands. If they take a possessed Hollow into the Imperial City, then they’ll all be in trouble.

Uncle Bob is waking up and trying to claw at Aran’s heavy encounter suit, but the suit is too tough for the still half frozen Hollow body to do anything. Caul runs off to get Orlence for guidance while Aran holds Uncle Bob down.

Orlence is drunker than before. He’s starts cursing Caul out when Caul says they went into the refrigerator car, and is even more shocked when he’s told about the ghost in the body. He drunkenly stumbles up from his stool and eventually manages to get his encounter suit helmet on. Unfortunately, Orlence has no idea what to do with the guy once they get there. From the front of the train, the bulls all hear the whistle that means they’re getting close to Imperial City.

Adric has an idea, though. He’s going to set up a lightning cage inside the car with Uncle bob inside, then drag the hollow body out. This wouldn’t be enough to separate a living person from their body, it could separate a ghost from a Hollow. Uncle Bob’s eyes still plead for help from the bulls as they loop a cable around his feet and plant him in the middle of the electric field generators. Adric risks physical harm and winds up being pulled through the lightning fields when Uncle Bob starts kicking. But Bob is pulled through anyway. The Hollow’s head breaks open and starts bleeding on the floor, while Bob’s ghost was torn t shreds in the electric field.

Orlence is passed out in the corner by now. The bulls decide to leave him there with Uncle Bob. Either he’ll look like he was poking around where he shouldn’t or he’ll look like he singlehandedly saved the train from a ghost-possessed Hollow. Orlence is drunk enough that he won’t recall what happened. The bulls clear out before the train pulls into the station, doing one last very public patrol of the train. (The bulls never found out what happened to Orlence, but he didn’t work the Bayside line again.)

We wrapped up with playing the downtime a bit. I need to adjust the Ghost Lines dark rules a bit, as they earned a lot more money by sidejobs instead of their job as bulls. Everyone worked a side job. Aran, a Sevoran, also went drinking in the pub and bought his Trauma down by taking a mental scar “What about Uncle Bob?” which symbolized his sympathy for the ghosts they were destroying. Aran also worked as a bouncer at the same bar, got some Harm for his trouble but paid off a favor that he owed Ty Cronel the Fixer (a nasty criminal NPC that didn’t figure in very much). Caul chose the most sedate job possible: basketweaving, while Adric went leviathan hunting. The game ended with Adric bursting in on Caul’s gentle basket weaving, excited about leviathan hunting and about the awesome lead that he earned on the side job. (shit, I forget now what the lead was. Something lucrative in northern Akoros.) If this had been the first session of a campaign instead of a one-shot, that lead would have been where we picked up next session.

I liked the game a lot! The setting really worked nicely. The Cthulhu Dark adaptation mostly did its job, with most PCs taking varying amount of Harm and Trauma. Think that two or three ghosts and you’d be close to dead and ready to buy some scars in your downtime. (I think a few of the feedback loops only kick in over a few jobs instead of one single job, though.)

Very cool. Would play again.

Might play again next week, actually. We had too many players show up, so we separated into two groups and the latter played Pandemic and Elder Sign. So now I have to run Ghost Lines for those people at some point.

[House of Masks] Version 0.3 playtest

House of Masks playtest

Last night, we played House of Masks for the first time in two or three years. Six players, total play time about two hours to tell a complete, interesting fantasy story. Everybody seemed to have fun, I think, and the fundamentals of the game design mostly seemed to work.

(The following is mostly me hinking about the game’s systems and such, with relatively little detail of the fiction we generated. That fiction was really cool, but it would have to be a different post.)

I first wrote house of Masks for Game Chef 2008 and get the urge to work on it again every year or two. The playtest of yore had suggested that the core situation and characters were interesting but the core system was problematic. So the new version completely rips out the old mechanics and replaces them. Now the game is a tight, simple blend of my favorite bits of Fiasco, Ganakagok and A Penny for My Thoughts.

The game keeps the basic scenario: a big epic fantasy game, wherein a sorcerer-king built a castle where the physical world and spirit world meet. Any spellcaster who enters the castle has their spirit self awaken, and that spirit self can then take control of their body. Thus, each character is controlled by two people alternating. There are three main characters:

Castor, the sorcerer-king conquering the earth,
Inanna, a foreign princess due to marry Castor to settle peace between their two kingdoms
Thalia, the last surviving mermaid, whose people were killed in the war.

Each character has an alternate personality, played by a different character (e.g., Castor is suave and cool and cunning, his spirit side Pollux is violent and angry and full of rage). There are some simple rules for switching who controls the character at a given moment, which makes for fun tag-team play. In a few cases, which player delivered a line made for dramatic or comedic irony: if Inanna (who can only tell the truth) says something, that is different than if her spirit Kur says it (as Kur can only lie). In one case, Heather used the switching to get off the narrating hook and transfer that responsibility to her partner Ross.

9I fear that I sidelined my partner Chuck as the game went on, which was my own fault and is probably something else to look out for. There’s a rule for that that came up once or twice but I never applied to myself even though I should have, which would have guaranteed Chuck got a chance to control Inanna some more.)

The setup phase is supposed to direct everyone into conflict with everyone else. This seemed to work well, though some desires fell by the wayside. That’s fairly natural in a GMless game of this size (six players!). We also sort of forgot to include the formalized “block another player’s desire” stage. But since we worked fine without that aspect, perhaps it isn’t necessary.

The key for the current system is a constrained deck of Tarot-like cards. Most of these were pulled from the Deck of Many Things that Wizards of the Coast released a while ago. These each got a bit of symbolic meaning attached to them (The Moon means “Secrets and Mysteries”, the Donjon means “To be unable to act, etc.). These cards would be interpreted, like in Ganakagok, to determine where the story went from there. The cards are used to begin and end scenes and establish setting details: to start a scene, the player with the Boon of Beginnings draws a crd and shows it. Then they pick two people to interpret the card. Each offers a scenario for where the game goes, and the Boon holder chooses the version that they prefer. The Boon is transferred to the person who made the better pitch, and the game then proceeds based on what was said.

When your scene reaches a climactic turning point (or if the scene is dragging and needs some energy injected into it), the player with the Boon of Endings draws a card and gets two interpretations as well. These help resolve the scene. The third Boon, the World’s Boon, was supposed to govern setting and NPCs, but it mostly seemed like it was getting int he way rather than assisting. I’ll need to rework that Boon or eliminate it entirely.

Each character Aspect gets their own sorcery card that they can use to replace the drawn card if they want. These did get used twice I think (out of a possible six). So they weren’t hugely important in play. But I feel like it is good to give players a way out if the card drawn doesn’t speak to them at all. One time that they did come into play (during a big fantasy battle, Castor’s evil side replaced the card drawn with a card of “Destruction” and we had two compelling interpretations of what his magic would destroy exactly. So I feel like they did benefit the game, even if they didn’t see too much use.

The deck in general worked really well. Sometimes the deck gave us a card that seemed to fit perfectly. Possibly too perfectly: in a few cases, it gave us a card that exactly matched what was already going on in the fiction. for example, when we went to resolve a big battle, we got the card “Sword: Violence and anger” which didn’t really answer our question of “how does the battle play out”. We already knew there would be swords and violence. Possibly we need to tweak the deck somewhat. I’m not sure what to change (though I may add more cards to the deck).

There’s no formalized endgame mechanic, but we reached a point where consensus agreed that the story was complete. At this point, I don’t feel like an endgame is needed as the story will naturally fall out of its unstable equilibrium into something more stable, or else the conflict will escalate until everything is destroyed. Future playtests might not reach a simple ending without prodding, though. Something to keep an eye out for.

Things that were good:

In two hours, we told a complete, compelling story with all sorts of plot twists and betrayals and magic and epic action and an army of undead mermaids and tragic, misguided mistakes. The story did what I hoped it would, and the game told the sort of fantasy story that I hoped it would. It wrapped up nicely on its own without a mechanical construct to force an ending. (Is this ending on its own reliable or just a construct of our own tory gaming experience? I can’t know without more playtesting.)

Also really good: asking two people for interpretations of the cards and then picking your favorite. If one person was having n off moment, the other person usually had a good idea (and had a moment to think and process while the first answered). Sometimes, though, you got a choice between two amazingly cool options and had the agony of only picking one. Which is great, as we kept moving toward a game that we liked more as it went on.

Things that were surprising

The dreamlike atmosphere that picking one of two caused. Someone said that, towards the end, it was hard to remember which branches we had taken and which we had rejected. We also at some point were reincorporating details from the rejected paths. This made the game seem very much like a fairy tale or a dream, where continuity and logic were less important than wonder and amazement. I liked it very much, but it was completely unexpected.

Things that were less good:

Sometimes the card interpretations at the beginning of the scene threatened to take over the scene itself. We’d wind up playing before we play; telling the story of the scene and then playing it out again with little change.

Sort of related to that was a problem of connecting the card interpretations to the start of a scene. Although we were asking players for “How does this scene begin?” their answer often related to the card but gave less idea of who was in the scene or what was happening/about to happen.

Both these problems can probably be sorted out by making sure the card interpretations stay short and to the point. Next playtest I’ll try to stress that and see if it works better.

Things to do differently in the future:

Remove the World Boon? Change how it works? Something needs to be done with it.
Tweak the initial setup so that there is no formalized denial of another’s desire?
Try to keep interpretations short and to the point and about a lead-in to the scene rather than the scene itself. Possibly make an explicit limit on length for card interpretation?
Try again, see how differently things can go.
Possibly adjust or expand the Tarot card deck?
Include an option where players can volunteer to be one of the two interpretations. Near the end, Heather was asked to interpret a card, but was stumped, while Ross and I both were excited by the ideals forming in our minds. When I mentioned this, we redid picking so that Ross and I both presented our interpretations and Heather was off the hook. Directing the question at people excited by their answer is a strong technique, but should be used sparingly (otherwise the most excited and loudmouthed will overwhelm the more reserved players.)

Those are my thoughts, or most of them anyway. I’d love to hear the thoughts of anyone else who was in the playtest (or any other interested observer from the internet, too.)

Manna Hotel LARP PCs

Here you;ll find the PCs from the Manna Hotel LARP that I wrote and ran recently.

Six core characters:
Tanner Cross, host of TV’s “Crosswords”
Howard Roberts, cameraman for News Channel Six
Sheriff Nelson Deharo, smalltown sheriff
Roxie Heart, famous rock star
Dante / Deedee Underwood, owns the hotel
Coleman / Karen Kane, bigshot music executive

If you have an odd number of players, add one of these two:
Winston / Winona Slater, “backup singer”
Candice Cross, ambitious TV producer

If you have eight or more, add these two:
Georgia Vang, rising young lawyer
Dwight Dickerson, hotel clerk

If you have ten or more, add:
Janie Lansing, back in her hometown once again
Marty / Marcy Lowell, quiet local

Other useful cards:
Outcome badges (These were used in the conflict resolution for the game.)

[Playtest report] The Big Fiasco at the Manna Hotel LARP

So I’ve been working for a while now on a Fiasco based parlor larp. The idea was to build a relationship map between a set of PCs using Fiasco playsets, then write them in a little more detail to make them into a one-shot live action character. We finally had the actual game on saturday, and it worked out pretty well. But the process had a few kinks in it. If I try this again, I’ll be changing up how I d things a little, using what I learned this time.

First, I started by generating a couple of circles of Fiasco characters. I decided to have each circle use a different Fiasco playset. This was partly as more experimentation (how well can you mesh together four playsets?) and partly to avoid repeating relationships or objects/needs/locations.

I chose a couple of playsets that fit loosely together. All four playsets were from the Playset of the Month. I didn’t want to add even more variables to the experiment by using fanmade playsets just yet. (Though if I do this again, I could see combining Dragon Slayers, Dwarf Fortress and Keeping on the Borderlands for a fantasy fiasco.) Flyover is set in the middle of the United States somewhere, and The Manna Hotel is set in middle-of-nowhere, Kansas. So those two go together naturally. They formed the initial seed of the game. Then I added in News Channel Six, since a news program fits into any modern setting at all. And a Touring Rock Band staying in the hotel added some additional mayhem, so why not?

I generated each playset’s circle of characters just as you do in normal Fiasco: roll some dice, allocate them to different characters, create some relationships and shared objects/needs/locations. This is one point where you could tell that Fiasco playsets weren’t exactly made for this purpose. Sometimes relationships and needs would require adding other characters or NPCs. Which would require somebody play those characters in the larp. And sometimes the options involved contexts or needs not resolvable in the larp’s context. Mostly, I avoided those relationships, which restricted choices somewhat.

I made four groups of three characters apiece. Then I made some connections between the circles, because I didn’t want the game to be four mini larps going on simultaneously. In normal Fiasco, you have a relationship with two other PCs: one on the left and one on the right. In order to make the circles interact, I gave each PC a relationship with someone in a different circle. Since there were three PCs in each circle and three other circles, each circle had a PC connected to each other circle. Each cross-circle relationship had one element from one layset, and one from the other playset. I didn’t roll any dice for cross-circle connections, because by this point I had a good idea what each character was, and I was trying to build the most interesting connections between circles.

At this point, I had a giant web of complicated connections. Just as in regular Fiasco, I was brainstorming while choosing relationships, and now I started nailing down details on who was who and how they related to other people. Who was being blackmailed and why? Which smalltown folks were the rockstar tied to? At this point I also started writing the actual character info sheets. After trying to figure out how to present information, I eventually settled on giving the information that would be on a Fiasco notecard (“Relationship: Roxie Heart. Friends: By Court Order. Need: To get some respect… from a rockstar”). Then I’d write a few paragraphs fleshing that information out for the player.

The complicated web of relationships was great, so long as I had exactly twelve players. As September went on, it became clear that we’d have fewer than that. So I had to construct a plan that accommodated the smaller number of players. I was originally going to take two circles of three and make them into a circle of five or smaller to deal with the smaller group. But now I had actual PCs on the table and stuff being written for them. And as I looked at that stuff, it actually was very hard to modify all the relationships and reconnect them elsewhere and still have characters that were mostly the same.

In the end, I just ignored the playset based circles altogether. I picked out the six core characters with the strongest plot threads running through the game, and made a circles charting their relationships into a circle. Then I saw how the other peripheral character tied into the game. Two PCs (Candice Cross and Winston / Winona Slater) fit into the game individually, as their ties were primarily to the core characters. The other PCs had strong relationships to each other. So if I wanted to include Dwight Dickerson, I’d also have to include Georgia Van (and vice versa).

This change of course required modifying a couple PCs a bit (Howard Roberts was the one forging documents for the sheriff, instead of Marcy Lowell). But it required less drastic changes than my original plan would have. Anyway, this was an issue I created for myself by trying to follow the Fiasco creation rules a bit more closely than really was needed. Once I started following my own methods of larpmaking, it worked out. In the future, I’d just make a circle of Fiasco character that was as large as my minimum number of players, then add on extra optional characters with relationships crossing the circle. (Possibly give each PC three relationships, then optional characters might add a fourth.)

When we finally played the game, I did use the black/white card system mentioned on G+ before. It worked okay, but not spectacularly well. It might be better suited for tabletop play rather than larp play. I did like how it made the GM something like the man in the diner from The Booth at the End. somebody would attempt something, and I’d say “If you give up a white consequence, sure.” If they didn’t have one, then they could fail and use up a black consequence instead, and get that result. (I don’t feel that I pushed the negatives hard enough on black consequences, though.)

People seemed to have fun. Occasionally the game did seem like it was a few separate larps with minimal interconnections. But there were enough connections that something happening in one circle’s plot would spill over to other circle’s plotlines.

I may also have chosen some more low-key relationships and needs than would have been ideal. The game went off without any violence and mostly white collar scheming. This isn’t bad, exactly. I just wonder if there was enough drama inherent in the game overall. Next time, I might endeavor to make sure that one or two PCs have a more action-y sort of goal.

I had fun, and I might try using Fiasco playsets to plan larps in the future. It didn’t actually simplify the middle to late stages of planning, but it speeded up the early brainstorming part greatly. A couple kinks were discovered, mainly because the playsets and setup rules weren’t written for exactly this purpose. But it worked well enough, and I learned some things that will make it easier to use for future times.