Author Topic: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback  (Read 2282 times)

Ron Edwards

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[... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« on: July 07, 2013, 12:16:35 PM »
Playtest feedback for "… and cast no shadow"

This is another of the Kickstart playtests, by Travis Casey. It's a bit of a white whale for him, originally conceived sometime around 2005 and undergoing periodic revisions since, but one reason he's giving it this shot is because it remains a pretty damn good idea. And this is coming from someone who is so done with vampires that I can't even tell you.

For those of who who've followed influential games in development, … and cast no shadow has a pretty good pedigree, indirectly one of the offspring of le mon mouri and directly sprouting from Vincent's Hungry Desperate and Alone. You'll instantly note the primary mechanic involves events ripping down one's character scores, with a given character's scores eventually becoming set against one another as well.

The game's aesthetic foundation and goal are absolutely clear: vampires are fucking monsters, specifically because they rely on intimacy of some kind in order to feed, and victims are at least potentially compliant or partly culpable in their own destruction. It was conceived as the anti-Anne Rice game and only fueled further by hatred for Twilight. (Allow me to toss in a personal beef with FFC's BS's Dracula. Same thing: predator, not secret lover.)

Clearly the game was conceived around the same time as, and shows some similarities to Annalise in terms of emotional outcomes, and also in being extremely out-there in system terms. I do recall how all the rage it was, in 2005-2006, to consider distributing character ownership and working off a single sheet of relationship-based arrows, for instance. But it's quite a different game in a lot of ways.

I talked with Travis on the phone before playing, which actually made it a little harder to use the playtest draft, because it was now altered by scribbled notes and my memory of the conversation. Travis, if you can post a link to an updated draft, that would help a lot.

For example, the draft I had was quite concerned with chapters of play, which relied upon players stating their characters' goals very, very precisely. These statements became hard-and-fast structural components of chapters; basically, you had to play toward them in order to finish chapters.

This struck me as remarkably constraining given how important individual choices were in the game – again, this is a direct descendant of le mon mouri, the game in which characters' own attributes are routinely turned against one another, and in which nearly any decision means you end up driving down at least one score – characters are pretty much "circling the drain" after a couple of meaningful exchanges. With such powerful internal engines of alteration (so drastic as to be more than "reward mechanic"), chapter-framing and goal-setting devices are intrusive, because the whole point is for these self-altering decisions to be made in the moment.

Fortunately, it turns out that Travis was thinking the same himself, so it seemed OK simply to abandon the chapters and pre-set goals to allow play to be more emergent.

I played with Bruce and Tony, who I think are accustomed to genre-first character creation, and I asked them to take it more character-first, and we'd work out the genre later. This is not only the way it's done in the text (although that might be an artifact), but I wanted to stay away from stock-emulative familiarity for the characters. Travis, in your example, you say, "We're doing Dracula" and go from there, but it's hard to tell whether that's exactly how you want a group to proceed when they're not doing Dracula. Genre-first is easiest, but as I say, I also think it would yield very lame, stock characters.

Tony took that ball and ran with it, determined to avoid copying stuff, and came up with a vampire that was actually a social-monitor, life-controlling, ultimate-nanny computer program, represented by a nigh-infinite number of stalking robots. It was a little tricky in play because the computer's role as punishing societal overseer had to be separated, thematically and mechanically, from its deeply personal, one-on-one role as a vampire. But it was totally doable and Bruce and I sort of lit up with excitement.

Tony named his uber-surveillance nanny computer vampire Theta X36-12, and with it in mind, the rest fell into place quickly.

Our Victims were McKinnon, an underground journalist; Phil, an entertainment-programming theatrical type; Dr. Gupta Surinama, a not-mad scientist who's built a working jammer; and Xander, the world's oldest man, who still remembered the pre-computer days.

Amusingly, both Bruce and I independently arrived at the idea of a second vampire as primal and vicious and secret as possible; Bruce built it as The Thing in the Dark.

Based on my conversation with Travis, we used only two Keys and two Weaknesses per character, and Travis, this turned out to be ideal in play – plenty to work with but not studded with details to soak up creation-time and scatter play-time.

Here's our relationship diagram. I especially like the way that the only starting relationships are Vampire-Vampire and Victim-Victim, forcing the crucial Vampire-Victim relationships to be established during play. I do have a question about this diagram as play proceeds, however, which I'll bring up after a little more groundwork.

Here's the hardest part of the rules to process and play, and although what we did ultimately made a lot of sense, I really don't know if it matches what you had in mind, Travis. Character ownership and turn structure is really different in this game, and since per our conversation, I ignored the chapter structure in the text, the only unit to work with is the scene. So this is how we did it. I'll use the text term "Claimed" and add the practical term "Framed" to mean "character is initially included."

First, we had six characters and three players. Each player Claims a character. The other three go into the middle.

The starting player must Frame his Claimed character and must Frame one of the other Claimed characters too; the other Claimed characters may or may not be Framed as that player sees fit.

The Claimed characters who were not Framed, if any, are available during the whole scene for Pushing In and for Calling On. If they Push In, they are effectively Framed, but if Called On, their rolls are subordinate to those of the character whose player Called On them.

The Unclaimed characters may be Called On; they can't resist, and their rolls will only augment Claimed characters' rolls. They are played more-or-less ad lib and so a player may find himself playing more than one character, albeit in different ways.

Within this scene, or more accurately, insofar as this particular person is taking on the active GM-type tasks, everyone plays freely with plenty of simple contests (win/lose, with no mechanical effects) until sooner or later someone wants to do something drastic to someone else's scores. Changing relationships, doing damage, and a whole host of other effects with understandable fictional content, e.g. turning a victim into a vampire, doing damage, et cetera – the same as "goals" in the original draft, only left up for grabs to emerge during play. After resolving this "critical" contest, and after any follow-ups, then we move the primary-player role to the left, put all the characters in the middle, i.e. Unclaiming everyone, and do it again.

Again, I'm not sure if that's exactly what you had in mind, Travis, but the fact is, it worked really well. It doesn't seem precisely like any other game I've encountered, although textual Universalis is similar, and it had all kinds of interesting emergent properties.

1. Your Claimed but not Framed guy on someone else's turn might not be involved after all. Doctor Surinama was obviously interesting to everyone but play didn't bring him in – possibly because we knew he was a lot of gun in this story and wanted to build up to it.

2. One or more people may well find themselves playing Unclaimed characters, perhaps in addition to their Claimed one. Now that I think of it, it's no big deal, because you're really doing this to augment your own character's rolls anyway.

3. Hypothetically, say we had three Victims both Claimed and Framed (or having been included later) in a scene, and someone Calls In one of the Unclaimed vampires. This is interesting because no one is advocating for the vampire as a character, and its rolls are only augmenters of one of our rolls. I don't even think it can be targeted for a damaging/altering roll … so that means when you want your "vampire hunters showdown," don't Claim all Victims! Instead, Claim one, Call in the others so the dice all stack, and have another guy at the table Claim the vampire in question. Very cool.

I realize this is probably baffling for the reader without a text to refer to, so suffice to say, throughout play, you could play nearly anyone you want to play, and characters shift among the two or three states I described above from scene to scene.

This whole concept barely sank in before we had to stop, but we were all bummed that we had to stop, because "it was just getting good."

With that concept established (perhaps as totally played wrong, but I hope not), now it's time for the question about relationships. I'm totally confused about one thing: what about the characters who aren't initially Claimed? Don’t they get to have relationships too? Or is it an emergent property that the half of the characters who aren't initially claimed are at most "targeted" by relationships and are targeting no one yet? (Conceivably unclaimed characters could be naked, relationship-wise, if Claimed characters mostly targeted one another this way.)

Wait – I just reviewed the rules and there's something we didn't do right. For each relationship, we were supposed to provide two phrases, one "traveling back" from the targeted character. I confess this is starting to confuse me. A relationship has an arrow, and that arrow is one-way. Relationships also have scores, starting a 0, potentially built up to 5. And relationships are "cemented," which means one of those phrases … what, makes the other one go away? I think the relationship mechanics are looking way too clunky and full of ideas, especially since in play, they operate much better as valid fictional entities. I like the idea of mechanically fighting over who controls the relationship, but the number of variables needs some scrubbing, I think.

So what about what happened during play? Tony took the first turn, Claiming the computer vampire and using it to harass McKinnon into investigating for it – since it fears the weird new entity in its perfect world, it's turning toward one of its harshest critics for help. The scene took place in McKinnon's horrible little citizen's-cubicle apartment informed more than a little by The Fifth Element, only not so funny – more like THX-1138, thematically speaking. I Pushed In with Phil to play a bit too. I think that turn ended with Theta X36-12 feeding on McKinnon.

One question about more game terms: the Stakes hierarchy concept seems a lot looser when you don't set it ahead of time. As far as I can tell, its only role is to set whether (and how) the loser of a roll can escalate into a follow-up contest – is that right?

Bruce took the second turn, Claiming McKinnon again, and I took The Thing in the Dark – Bruce Framed us both in, to cut to the chase. Tony Claimed Dr. Surinama but as it turned out, didn't get Called On or Pushed In. The Thing chased McKinnon through terrifying corridors and disobedient elevators, ultimately trapping him in one along with a dismembered corpse. At first we played it as feeding on him, but then realized this wouldn't have much mechanical effect, and so instead turned it into a relationship contest – so a relationship got established from the The Thing in the Dark to McKinnon, "Seeks an ally." McKinnon knocked a bit off its Mastery score with his successes.

It's important to distinguish between simple or ordinary contests, which do things fictionally but have no mechanical effects, and "critical" ones which do, and which signal the shift of the turn and the un-Claiming and re-Claiming of characters. The simple ones are win-lose, but the critical ones are not – they simply establish successes which each character in the contest gets to use.
 
This is good to some extent because it means characters should play toward relationships first, get locks on one another, and then they can strike for more devastating effect instead of just whittling on one other. But on the other hand, this means the game needs no, absolutely no slowdown mechanisms at all. Only one roll per scene is going to do anything mechanically, and for a game whose decisions rely heavily on mechanical changes, those actions have to be frequent – and most importantly, once hard-established in the fiction, hard-rolled in play, and after all this freaking work to squeak out your two or three successes, they should not possibly be blocked at the last moment.

Toward that end, I suggest eliminating the "cancel" effect of a success entirely, and to give Vampires 0 Vitality and Victims 1 Vitality to start. I'd also consider limiting Vitality to defend only against certain kinds of damage.

Travis, thanks not only for the generous Kickstart pledge, but also for the chance to play this game. I think it meets your goals, and I think I'm going to try to get Bruce and Tony to continue what we started. The more I look at the setup, the more interesting it gets.

Best, Ron

efindel

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #1 on: July 07, 2013, 05:29:24 PM »
Travis here!  I have done an updated draft, but it looks like it may need some more updates, since it appears that we understood a few things differently.  That's all right, though - it's good to explore options!

First off, yes, the character-first creation is an artifact.  You'll recall that the draft I gave you started off as a set of 'cheat sheets' for an earlier playtest, and it appears that the "talk about what kind of vampire stories you like and pick a time period and setting" part didn't get added in as part of expanding it for you.

With that said, I really like what happened in your case.  The important part is the idea of vampirism, more than emulating a traditional vampire, and I love the overseer-computer vampire.

Vampire-Victim relationships having to be established through play is definitely intentional.  Glad you like it!

I find the simple contests you've added intriguing.  Can you give a couple of examples of things that you used them for?  The way it worked before was that each scene had one and only one contest.  When that contest was resolved, the next player got to start a scene.  That could be a continuation of the previous scene, if that player felt there was more to do there, or it could be jumping forward or backward in time, to another location, etc.  You could also return to an earlier scene when starting a new one - either introducing something else that was happening at the same time (and potentially even at the same place) or picking up where the earlier scene left off.

Your understanding of Pushing In and Calling On seems right on the money... and thanks for the terminology addition with 'Framed'. That'll be useful.  The similarity to Universalis is intentional - it's another influence on ACNS.  Hitting your numbered points:

1.  This is intentional.  Players have the freedom to explore various player roles/stances throughout the game, and if you want to simply observe and be audience/kibbitzer for a scene, you're free to.  You don't have to try to Push In if no one Calls On you.  Of course, doing this all the time would rapidly get boring for most people, and that's why small group sizes are recommended:  since every scene has at least two characters in it, if you've got no more than four players, you should get to be active in at least half the scenes.

2.  Also intentional.  This is almost certain to happen if you wind up playing with two players, which the game is meant to support.  Claiming a character but winding up playing another one can also happen, which is a way to allow players who really hate the idea of anyone else playing 'their' character to keep the character they want to have exclusively off the table, but still get to play some others.

3.  You're right - a character who has been Called On can't be targeted.  Note, though, that the scene starter chooses a target character after players have claimed characters.  So, everyone could Claim a hunter, then the scene starter could declare the vampire to be the target of the scene.  At that point, someone would be chosen to play the vampire in the scene, using the rules for determining who plays an unclaimed character when needed.  That person would then be playing both a hunter and the vampire.  With that said, the way you describe is probably more mechanically effective.

Moving on to relationships - characters who aren't initially claimed don't get to have any, yes.  The thought behind this is that the characters that the players claim initially are (we hope) those who are the most interesting to them.  By letting them have relationships, but the unclaimed ones not, it becomes natural that the story centers around the initially-claimed characters.  Of course, if someone wants to put out the effort to take one of the unclaimed characters and start creating relationships for it, that character can get an importance upgrade.

On the two phrases for each relationship - they both apply to the same one-way relationship.  It goes like this (pardon crappy ASCII drawing - I'd do a graphic, but I'm a bit rushed at the moment), taking the example from the text:

               is weary of (Dracula)
Dracula -----------------------> The Brides
               must restrain (The Brides)

So, we have two possible relationships of Dracula to The Brides, and which one is ultimately the important relationship will be established through play, as people try to weaken or strengthen one side or the other.  "Is weary of" is the relationship that Dracula's player defined; if it becomes cemented, then Dracula controls the relationship.  "Must restrain" is the relationship the Brides' player defined; if it becomes cemented, then The Brides control the relationship.

As it stands now, cementing a relationship is a race to the finish - whichever gets to a value of five first is cemented.  Cementing, though, doesn't eliminate the other side - it only establishes the relationship as Controlled by the cementing side, and renders the relationship immune to change temporarily (for the next Chapter, previously; for the next Scene, now).

You can also Break a relationship by reducing its value to zero.  If you do that, then the side that you Broke is erased, and can't be put back.

So, let's say the relationship "Dracula is weary of The Brides" is at a 4, and "Dracula must restrain The Brides" is at a 3.  A player trying to manipulate the relationship could choose to either advance a side, or push a side back - or, if they end up with enough successes in the contest, do both.  Let's say they're trying to cement 'is weary of', and get two successes.  One success will push 'is weary of' up to 5, triggering a climactic event and the possibility that the relationship cements.  So, what to do with the other success?  They could use it to push down 'must restrain' to 3, which would make it a bit more difficult for someone else to come along later and wrest control of the relationship back to The Brides. 

Let's say it's cemented at weary-5/restrain-3.  Now, to break the cemented relationship, someone has to take the weary side down to 0, then win a climactic contest.  The relationship then becomes uncontrolled again.

The big question is... is this complication needed?  To date, no one in any playtest I've done has ever tried to change a relationship once it became cemented... and that's even in earlier versions, where doing it was easier than it is now.  I'm thinking that 'race to the finish, then it's permanently cemented' might be an easier model.

That's all for right now - I'll be back later with more, but right now, I absolutely must find food!

efindel

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2013, 11:36:15 PM »
... and I'm back.

You're right on what Stakes do mechanically.  The other reason that the Stakes exist is to underline that this game is unusual, in that dying is generally the least bad thing that can happen to someone.  This in turn leads to the Stakes reversal in a climactic contest, where someone can try to be killed instead of dominated, or to be dominated instead of turned.

You also did exactly the right thing with the Thing In the Dark creating a relationship to McKinnon instead of feeding on him.  Mechanically, Feeding only exists to give a way to lower Needs.  If your Need isn't high, then you don't need to Feed per mechanics, but you can still describe the results as involving feeding (small f) on the victim.

Eliminating the cancel effect of a success does sound like a good idea - in previous play, it generally wound up that the victor would cancel all of the loser's successes, unless the victor absolutely couldn't and still accomplish what they wanted to (e.g., "I have four successes, he has two.  I want to turn him, and he's at three innocence.  I can take his innocence down to zero if I let him keep one of his successes....").  I think you're right, and eliminating that "cautious play" option will amp things up.  I might leave the possibility of blocking successes as an optional rule, with an explanation that it's mainly useful if you should want to drag the game out longer.

Similarly with Vitality, I think you're probably right.  It's definitely something that needs to be played with, to see what the effects of different levels are, so go for it that way right now.

If you could let me know Bruce and Tony's full names, or whatever names they'd like to be credited as playtesters with, I'd appreciate it.

Once I get a better idea how you were using "simple contests", I'll add those into the rules, and get an updated version out there.

Thanks again - this is definitely very useful, and I'm glad you're enjoying the game this much!

Ron Edwards

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #3 on: July 08, 2013, 12:33:53 AM »
Hi Travis,

I'm pretty convinced that my simple/critical distinction between contest types comes from the rules draft you gave me.

From page 5:

Quote
A simple contest is rolled thusly: each character's player rolls a number of dice as determined by the rules for the type of contest happening. Odd numbers on the dice are successes, and the character who has more successes wins the conflicts. Ties go to the active character (i.e., the one who started the contest, or whose scene this is).

It's strongly implied in and around that paragraph that a lot of these rolls might show up, or at least, that's how I read it.

Then on page 9 you talk about the scene contest, which I should have remembered was the name for it when I wrote "critical contest" in my post. In the text, this kind of contest is explicitly about the stated goal, but per our conversation, is now about anything that qualifies as such a goal – which as it turns out, means anything that changes numbers on the sheet. The distinction between this contest and the earlier-described ones is explicit:

Quote
A scene contest doesn't really have a "winner" and a "loser," the way a simple contest does. Instead, each side gets to spend its successes, narrating what's happening as they do. The side with the most successes goes first, then the one with the next most, each doing something with one or more successes.

I'm not posting to be argumentative. I'm thinking maybe you'd put that in and didn't remember it, or maybe jettisoned the idea and I was using legacy text. Or maybe I am simply taking a chance word or two farther than you intended.

Whatever it is, I do think it's a good thing. This way you can roll to see whether this character grabs the doohickey successfully from the other character's hands, without having to go to a no-holds-barred, scene-ending, numbers-altering moment.

Let me know what you think.

Best, Ron

efindel

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #4 on: July 08, 2013, 05:08:49 PM »
I think the best thing to call it would be a 'happy accident'.  I put in the bit about 'simple contests' because I was considering at one point having other sorts of contests besides scene contests and end of chapter (now climactic) contests, and I wanted to introduce the basic idea/mechanic of a contest early on.  I never actually used them in previous playtests.

With that said, though, I think using that as a way to decide things in the game that the players can't agree on, but you don't feel rate being the scene contest makes perfect sense, and I'm glad it happened!

So call it serendipity - I wrote that with one purpose in mind originally, and you found another for it!

I think I should be able to update the playtest draft tonight and get it uploaded somewhere.  I'll post a link here once I do.  Thanks!

--Travis

Paul Czege

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #5 on: July 08, 2013, 06:03:40 PM »
Man, this sounds familiar. Did my wife Danielle and I playtest this with you at Camp Nerdly a few years ago Travis?

Paul

efindel

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #6 on: July 09, 2013, 09:20:06 PM »
Yes, you did Paul!  I still have the notes from that playtest, and some of it went into shaping the current version.

efindel

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Re: [... and cast no shadow] Playtest feedback
« Reply #7 on: July 09, 2013, 10:29:10 PM »
... and here is the new playtest draft, with the changes Ron and I agreed on incorporated:  https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7ezcAYtsRNNdDBBMVNkQ2JaSUE/edit?usp=sharing