Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fantasy: Gateway Playtest Aftermath

Hmm. Apparently, this will be long.

First of all, Gateway was just a good time. Finally played in Morgan Ellis's "Spirit of the Shattered Earth" game -- well, I say "finally," but it's only the second time he's run it at Strategicon -- which was a lot of fun. If you know your post-apoc references, you'll dig this game. Any game that explicitly acknowledges Kamandi and Thundarr is all right in my book. I caused a ruckus as Gorlla, the Mighty Crorc. I've encouraged Morgan a couple of times to get his act together and publish this thing in some form or other, so hopefully he'll do that.

Probably the coolest thing about "SotSE" is the game aspects, which I'll try to remember in their entirety:
  • Splash Page
  • Comic Book Panels
  • A World in Ruins
  • Kirby Dots
  • The Familiar Made Fantastic
  • Catchphrases

I love Splash Page. Invoke it and describe your character lookin' good on a splash page. Needless to say, Gorlla had a lot of splash pages.

The game also includes its own method of plot generation. Collectively, the players come up with, like, 14 other aspects for the game. It starts with picking a monument or landmark of some kind, like the Grand Canyon, the Space Needle, or the Hoover Dam, and rename it and/or the city it's in post-apocalyptically: the Grand Landfill, or the Emerald Jungle, or Hooville. Come up with something that's weird about the city and the landmark. Our Space Needle, f'rinstance, was at an extreme angel. Er, angle.

That's followed by the Menace, the Problem, and some other stuff, along with Post-Apoc Touches. It's a ton of fun collectively coming up with all of this as players -- and prep time for the GM is, like, zero (although he'll pay for it later in improvisational skills).

Ours ended being a pretty silly amalgam of Starbucks, "caffiends," Microsoft and giant seahawks. Can you guess where we were? I bet you can.

No Colin this Gateway, but y'know what? Who needs 'im? We had a fine time without him.

(Colin, please come back. Thank you.)

As for "SotS," the playtest went very well. I attribute this to a few things. One, the adventure was paced better than the last one, and didn't rely on a setting conceit that I found amusing but which didn't especially translate well at the table. Two, the character designs were more focused on the adventure itself -- no more characters who excel at avoiding everything, and no more stunts that are just there for flavor. Three, the lack of stress tracks made combat more exciting.

Based on that playtest, I'd say there's very little in the way of mechanical tweaking to be done. One thing that's broken: stunts that let you inflict a consequence for a Fate Point. Minions with no Grit are just a Fate Point away from instant annhilation. But change it to an aspect instead of a consequence, and we're good.

Adventure synopsis follows:

The adventure involved the PCs, a somewhat disparate collection of the faithful in Busra, investigating the apparent disappearance of an acolyte named Tartalo from the Great Cathedral of the Maiden. After talking with a few other acolytes, the party headed for Beggar's Alley, a.k.a. the poor part of town. The Justiciar and the Inquisitor busted heads in a floating dive bar called the Downed Buzzard, while the other four PCs made nice with some street people.

Collectively, they discovered that a number of vagrants had gone missing over the past few weeks, once every three days, and the acolyte -- in the neighborhood being charitable -- was apparently the last victim. The perpetrator: a demonic winged creature of some kind, which the knowledgeable among the party determined was a gargoyle. Normally, the creatures lie dormant, posing as mere ornamentation on a building, until forced back into life by a practitioner of forbidden magicks and forced to do his bidding.

As the PCs were discussing matters, down from the low-lying rainclouds swooped the aforesaid gargoyle. The Inquisitor bravely stepped forward to meet the beast, and was quickly snatched up in its claws and carried away. ("Good!" said Erik, the player. "It's taking me to them!") Three more gargoyles swooped down shortly thereafter, more intent on killing than kidnapping, but the party eventually put them down. At the end of the fight, Paskal Salaberri, celebrated actor of Mallora, was missing. Wherever did he go, I wonder?

While Olarra invoked her "Architectural Gymnastics" aspect for effect to see if she could remember where, in her many self-guided architectural tours about the city, she may have seen a collection of four huge gargoyles, the Inquisitor relaxed and enjoyed the ride. It ended at a tall tower, some five or six stories high, that had been essentially hollowed out. The gargoyle dropped him off at the ground floor and was prepared to fly away again, but didn't get a chance to before being split asunder by its victim's headsman's axe. The Inquisitor wasted no time in opening an obvious trapdoor in the floor and heading down the stairs it revealed. Thirty feet down, the stairs ended in a well-constructed tunnel, its floor marked by cart tracks. He started walking, and about a mile along encountered two robed, masked figures pulling a cart who, apparently, didn't see him. He scared the bejeezus out of both of them, then detained one for questioning before lopping the poor fellow's head off.

Meanwhile, everyone found the tower without too much fuss. The doors were apparently barred from the inside, though, and the windows boarded -- so Olarra decided to scale the outer wall to gain access. (Ballsy, but I should've compelled her "Mail Coat" aspect to penalize her roll -- oh well. Compels are something a lot of us SotC GMs need to work on, from what I hear.) She opened the front door, let everyone in, and they all went down the open trapdoor.

After a mile, they came across a decapitated body. Eww.

A mile later, they found the Inquisitor standing before an ornate stone archway in the tunnel, flipping through a book. He determined that it was a guardian arch dedicated to the Deceiver, eternal foe of the Maiden, and when he stepped closer it spoke to him in a dark tongue which, thanks to invoking an aspect for effect, he understood to say "Who passes through this arch?" His answer was plausible but incorrect -- something about terrorizing the weak, as I recall -- and then a bunch of animated skeletons came clawing their way out of the dirt walls, and, with a grinding of hidden gears, a stone barrier started to lower in the archway, threatening to cut off further progress. Sister Morwyn struggled to hold it open using magic while most everyone else started smashing skeletons. They weren't too much of a threat, and with a second effort Morwyn slammed the barrier into the ceiling so hard it cracked in twain.

Proceeding onwards, they came to a set of thick double-doors set into the tunnel and embossed with the seal of the Deceiver -- an evil demonic face. The Inquisitor tried to bust it open, and achieved some ridiculous level of success, like a Legendary +1 or something. The scene immediately lost the aspect "Double Doors" and gained the aspect "Pile of Scrap Lumber." The room beyond was truly a chamber of horrors: The walls were lined with victims of the Deceiver cult, chained to the walls and bleeding slowly into channels in the floor which in turn led to a huge vat of blood set into the center of the room. Also present: about 24 cultists and two obvious boss-types. One of them yelled "Seize them!" and it was on.

All kinds of heroics ensued, so let me just bullet-point this:

  • The long-awaited return of Paskal Salaberri, who was somehow one of the cultists, thanks to his Master of Disguise stunt (a.k.a. The Funnest Stunt in the Game). First he slashes up a few cultists, then he convinces some others to turn on their cult leaders and stop with all the blood rituals already.
  • Olarra leaping up, grabbing onto a low-hanging chain ("Chamber of Horrors" was an aspect), swinging across the room over the heads of the bosses in back, then, on the backswing, knocking one of them -- who, incidentally, turned out to be Father Berasko, an official at the cathedral who tried to lead their investigation astray -- into the vat of blood.
  • Egun the dwarf holding Berasko's head down in the vat of blood and, well, drowning him. METAL.
  • Sister Morwyn casting a simple Light spell to dispel a group of living shades Berasko had conjured up (I loved that Selene, her player, used a spell in a totally different way than I'd foreseen, and to such great effect) -- which also replaced the room's "Flickering Torchlight" aspect with "Well-Lit." I think I gave her a Fate Point for that because it was so cool.
  • Inquisitor Gurtuz walking up to a group of minions and scaring them into surrender. Keep in mind that these guys effectively work in a subterranean chamber filled with dying people and blood and chains and Maiden knows what else.
  • Brother Todor, the Justiciar, starting and winning an Intimidation-based staring contest with the Old One, the leader of the cult, who'd been kept alive for time out of mind by a thousand years of blood rituals.

We ended about 20 minutes late (typical, for me), so I didn't get to the denouement, but it was this: A secret door from that chamber of horrors opened onto some winding stairs that led to... the Great Cathedral! Dun-dun-duh!

After the game, Hamish, who played Olarra and who had played in my Qin: The Warring States game at OrcCon back in February, suggested I run a kung-fu game using SotC. That immediately got me thinking, and I'm almost ashamed to say that I pretty much have the whole thing sketched out already. I'll post it later this week.


Unknown said...

Nice writeup!

I'll put my real comments up front, and then put my geek-gushing afterwards...

Question: You said you ran over by 20 minutes, but how much real-time did all this play take?

"At the end of the fight, Paskal Salaberri, celebrated actor of Mallora, was missing. Wherever did he go, I wonder?"

...The play-experience of this interests me. So given where he shows up, did the player just kinda sit there and pick a point to drop back into the game with a dramatic reveal? How did this actually play out?

"One thing that's broken: stunts that let you inflict a consequence for a Fate Point. Minions with no Grit are just a Fate Point away from instant annhilation. But change it to an aspect instead of a consequence, and we're good."

...[quickly scribbling through spells]

"Compels are something a lot of us SotC GMs need to work on, from what I hear."

...Guilty of that myself. Any links you know of where GMs discuss / trade hints to address?


"no more characters who excel at avoiding everything,"

...I got one player/character who's killing me with that kinda nonsense.

"While Olarra invoked her 'Architectural Gymnastics' aspect for effect to see if she could remember where, in her many self-guided architectural tours about the city,"

...Consider that aspect stolen. My other player is gonna have a field day with that one.

"Egun the dwarf holding Berasko's head down in the vat of blood and, well, drowning him. METAL."



Mike Olson said...

It was a four-hour game. Well, four hours and 20 minutes.

I'd say about 10 minutes of that was explaining basic concepts to the SotC virgins, and probably a good 20 minutes was everyone filling out their Adventure phase and coming up with two more aspects ("Architectural Gymnastics," BTW, was something Hamish came up with on the fly during his Adventure phase).

We probably spent... I dunno... 40 minutes or so playing through the Adventure phases. From my limited experience with those, I tend to run long in the beginning as I get my footing for that sort of thing, and then short in the end as I realize how long it's taken.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and the last player (Selene, playing Morwyn) to do her Adventure phase was probably the most fun. She'd written the beginning of an adventure down in that phase, but didn't know how to end it. The setup was that Morwyn was sent to quell a radical religious faction that claimed that Fae were demons, so her Adventure took the form of a debate, with the crowd taking... I dunno... "Persuasion stress."

I just thought it was fun to rant on about how and why her character was obviously a demon.

As for Salaberri and his Master of Disguise stunt -- yes, that's pretty much how it went. It's a risky stunt sometimes, because when you drop out you can never be sure when some random mooks will have a chance to show up and therefore get you back in the game. I didn't worry about how he'd gotten into cultists' garb, or how he'd gotten past the archway. He was just there, stabbing dudes in the gut.

And yeah, it was a dramatic reveal. As his group of minions was running towards the party, he whipped out a couple daggers and gutted the two guys on either side (I let him attack with Deceit, because it seemed cool, and because it'd pretty much guarantee he did well, which was a necessary thing for him to look even cooler). Then there was the "It is I, Paskal Salaberri!" moment. I think I had some minions applaud. Albert made a lot of use of Paskal's disguise-based stunts, which was, y'know, good.

(My regular SotC character -- and by "regular," I mean "I made him and played him once" -- is Incognito, a master of disguise. He's all about that stunt. I basically pay a Fate Point at the beginning of every scene, then show up as a random guy later on, then pay a Fate Point again to drop out again. He also has Disguise of the Mind, which lets him use Deceit -2 in place of any skill the person he's disguised as might have. It's pretty good, but it did make for an oddly personality-free character: He was always someone else, and never himself.)

"I got one player/character who's killing me with that kinda nonsense."

Y'know, I don't necessarily think it's a bad way to play, in and of itself, but in a con setting it's death.