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.)