Monday, December 16, 2013

[Thrilling Fate!] More Playtests

So this happened. Clockwise, starting with me: Me (speaking with hands), top of Mark Gagliardi's head, back of Molly Quinn's head, side of Ben Blacker's head, Ben Acker, fan-favorite Hal Lublin.
Hi all my buddies! Right up top, this week's episode of the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast is last year's "Christmas on Mars" show, so go download that.

Now that that's out of the way, I've done two more playtests of Thrilling Fate! since my last blog post. Both were fun and productive, but I'm not gonna lie: I preferred the one pictured above, for reasons which should be obvious.

In late November, I ran a playtest at the Nerd SoCal Game Day at Game Empire in Pasadena. Besides me, we had Hamish Cameron as Sparks, Morgan Ellis as Croach, David Gallo as Cactoid Jim, Megan Arch as the Red Plains Rider, and Gina Ricker as Rebecca Rose Rushmore. Although only Morgan had really had any exposure to the source material at that point -- he did play the theme song for everyone before I got there -- we produced a very authentic-feeling Sparks story nonetheless, which is kinda the point. Plus, a couple of them are now subscribers to the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, so you're welcome, Acker and Blacker.

The big thing that came out of that playtest was that the PCs need cues that point them at one another. Croach had a cue that encouraged the player to mention his weird Martian anatomy; Sparks had a cue that encouraged the player to be grossed out by Croach. There was a cool moment when that synergy worked like a charm: Croach shoved his secondary esophageal tract down Sparks' throat to save him from suffocation, which naturally grossed out Sparks (and, to be honest, the rest of us as well).

But... nobody else really had that level of mechanical incentive to interact with the other characters. Worse, some had cues that were purely reactive, and that relied on other players doing something first -- like Jim's cue about deflecting praise, which is meaningless unless someone praises him. So that was a problem. I was reluctantly convinced that the best solution was to give everyone a cue for each other PC. This also seemed like a problem, but I couldn't see a way around it.

Another thing was that people were only incentivized to play to their cues when they had aspects that needed recharging, which meant that in the beginning of the game there was no incentive to do that. The simple solution, from David, was to start everyone off with all of their aspects pre-exhausted.

(It's also worth noting that in the next game that day, Gina invented the law firm of Acker, Blacker, Marc & Mark. We'll be seeing more of that sooner or later, I'm sure.)

Before the next playtest, I gave each PC five cues. These broke down like this:

  • Mannerism: Something active the player can almost always do or say in a scene.
  • Response: Something reactive the player can usually expect to have the opportunity to do or say in a scene. 
  • Connections: Two cues that tie the PC to other, specific PCs. In the end, I just couldn't do one cue with each other PC for two reasons. One, it was unwieldy -- every new PC I made would've meant n+1 cues for me to write and for the player to manage. Two, it just didn't work. The fact is that not every character in Sparks Nevada has a meaningful relationship with each other character. I figured if each PC connected to two other PCs -- which ended up being Sparks and one other -- that would make for enough of a web of interactions.
  • Dramatic: The big once-per-episode cue that should happen at a dramatic moment. Sparks announces he's from Earth. Croach discards the customs of his people in service of the greater good. Red confesses her feelings for Sparks, Croach, or Jim.
I also simplified troubles and made some cosmetic changes in the interest of making everything as accessible as possible to new players -- specifically, I renamed "fate points" to "story points" and changed "stunts" to "gimmicks." 

This was all in preparation for December 7th, when the playtest pictured above took place. And it was so rad, you guys. We had Mark Gagliardi and Molly Quinn playing their characters from the show (Croach and Pemily Stallwark, respectively), Ben Blacker playing the Barkeep, Ben Acker playing the Red Plains Rider, fan-favorite Hal Lublin playing Cactoid Jim, and Clint Trucks as Sparks Nevada. (Marc Evan Jackson couldn't make it, but Clint was a great Sparks.)

Here's another picture of that!
Left to right: Gagliardi (cosplaying as Scroach the Rocker), Quinn, Trucks, Lublin.
I will keep posting pictures of this game, because it was awesome and I can't believe I was lucky enough to run it with these people as players. Video of this will, as I understand it, be included as an extra on the DVD of the concert film that this Kickstarter helped produce. So get that DVD when it comes out. Thanks to Charlie Fonville for capturing and providing all this media. I'll post more pics when I get them, for the aforesaid reason.

Clint's a dedicated GURPS player, and I believe Hal plays D&D and Pathfinder, but the other four had no gaming experience. (Molly had a friend in high school -- which... was only a couple years ago, apparently -- who was into RPGs, but she never got into them herself despite some interest.) I'm happy to say Acker, Gags (look, I'm just gonna call him Gags), and Molly seemed to get the hang of it after a couple rolls. Blacker had an air of apprehension about him whenever I talked about mechanics, but even still he steered the Barkeep to glorious victory over the Bad News Compadres in the game's final scene. In the end, he estimated he got about 80% of it. Which is fine -- we wrapped things up in about 90 minutes, so I'm sure if we'd taken more time on the front end to discuss things he would've been closer to 100%. As it was, I was very conscious of not taking up too much of everyone's time with the game.

Fortunately, everyone had a great time. I believe this because they repeatedly told me so. The scenario was a cross between Dune, Jaws, and a classic Western bank robbery. Cactoid Jim defeated an adolescent Tremors-style sandworm by taming it, Pemily lassoed and rode an enormous Shai-Hulud-style sandworm and rode it into town, the Barkeep gave Alloy Roy some trouble, Sparks promoted Pemily to First Deputy over Croach, and Croach... Croach was Croach. Mark spoke in the Croach voice pretty much the whole time, in character or out. Charlie's video footage will give testament to that. And Hal did the intro narration! Live, in my face!

In short, the game couldn't have gone better. It was just an amazing opportunity, and I'm so grateful to everyone not just for making time for it, but for being and having so much fun. The icing on the cake was Acker telling me I knew more about their show than he and Blacker do, which... I doubt that's true, but it's awfully flattering nonetheless.

(Non-gaming tangent: I had kind of a Thrilling Adventure Weekend, actually. That Saturday night, my wife, a friend, and I went to their Christmas show, which not only heavily featured Jib Janeen the Jupiter Spy throughout but also included a Philip Fathom story. Look for it next December! They're a year behind. Anyway, the next day, my wife and I went to the Thrilling Adventure Hour holiday brunch, which was just so cool. Man. Gags and Molly told me again how much fun they'd had at the game, Paul F. Tompkins almost accidentally struck my wife in the face, I explained roleplaying games to Marc Evan Jackson (who'd been told the playtest the day before had been "the real deal"), I had a great conversation with TAH musical director Andy Paley, we talked with James Urbaniak... there were fritters... I spotted Mark McConville... Weird Al Yankovic was there... I could go on. I felt like I'd won a contest. I know I'm getting all fanboyish here, but c'mon, how couldn't I? Be reasonable!)

Okay, Professionalism Mode re-engaged.

I'll be playtesting Thrilling Fate! again this Sunday the 22nd back at Game Empire. Making another change to cues that incorporates a Danger Patrol-esque "What happened last time?" setup. Have to come up with a holiday-themed scenario first, but I have, like, all week to do that, right?