Author Topic: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms  (Read 2144 times)

Ron Edwards

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[From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« on: January 27, 2014, 09:17:58 PM »
Another Sorcerer Kickstart playtest! This one is by James McGeorge - as he describes it, it's an homage to Gamma World with a solid shift of focus to social SF. He references Mad Max (again, we're talking about the original Aussie film, under-viewed) and A Boy and His Dog, so he and I instantly high-five in the culture wars and move on. The setting is "apocalypse in concept, tune to suit."

There are two major mechanical dynamics in play: mutation and bearings. Mutations are observed in every character, human and animal origin alike, some few of which are not important beyond their basic features (like animal characters being able to speak), and most of which are quite important. In a nutshell, critical results when using a mutation increase its rating; the higher the rating, the more likely the character will mutate more (and further increase the rating), and the more likely that, on a critical failure, the character becomes unstable and dies messily. So it's a power-up and die situation, with the rate set at critical results and unlucky secondary rolls. (Reminding me of Strikeforce Morituri although not socially framed in the same way)

Bearings refer to a position on a graph numbered 1-10 in all four directions; law is at the top, anarchy is at the bottom; innovation is to the left, tradition is at the right. Every character is situated on the graph as the result of a "twenty questions" procedure during character creation. His or her bearings are relatively stable, although the position might be bumped a little if the character does something profoundly contrary to their current leanings.

The setting has a bearing too, beginning at the center (0, 0). It's way, way more volatile regarding the outcomes of play. It's not mechanical though: every scenario or situation, whatever you want to call it, bumps it a few units wherever the GM thinks the characters' actions, or rather their outcomes, seem to have been directed.

The two sorts of bearings interact with the mutations. One's roll to avoid Cascading (spinning toward meltdown/death) is worse if your personal bearings don't jibe with that of the world, on a 1:1 basis.

So character creation is randomized through a series of layers and minor choices, but appropriately given the above dynamics, is quite free-will regarding mutations and bearings. Our heroes were …

Sarah's Vin Weasel, a biggish speaking weasel with thumbs and a gun; and Mark's Tetsubishi, a hulking multiply-augmented mutant human with a sword. Both were situated a bit positive on the Law end ("high"), but Vin was way over to the left with Innovation and Tetsubishi was a bit traditional by contrast. Frankly, I went into the front end of the character creation process without much enthusiasm, but at the end of it, all of us were pretty pleased with the characters and eager to see them go.

The rules draft I received was bereft of situation-creation discussion, although a look at the rules dynamics imply a strong focus on situations which put the four ends of the axes into tension. I asked James if this was like most western films, in which the lawless frontier and the uneasy, sometimes corrupt stability of the towns were major components, and he said yes, absolutely. So I started with a community. I found a village map at the Map-a-Week feature at wizards.com, as is my wont, and riffed off its unusual elements like the walled-up connectors throughout the outlying buildings. I whipped up a quick names list like Gear and Cord and not-ripping-off-Apocalypse-World, and ended up with a Grimjack-meets-strongman-stronghold feel for it all (even with a Nasty Detmer homage character, if any of you know who that is).

So, as an aside regarding the draft, James, I must tell you that none of your listed foes and forces are very good. They simply don't hit the tension among the four concepts which compose the four axes. I didn't use any of them specifically for that reason.

In these settings, Color matters so much it's practically the linchpin for play. I did not stint, and with the isolation of this community in mind, I began with a threat which I strangely have never used in role-playing before, despite loving them with all my heart: motorcycle centaurs. Yeah, you got it, from the waist up pretty much Yahoos from Gulliver's Travels right out of the original illustrations,  perched on the front end (not the seat position) of incredibly beat-up but incredibly powerful Harleys. Play began with the characters making their way across the badlands to the town in the foothills of a mountain range, and the motorcycle guys trying to run them down. I had so much fun narrating the incidental details of their actions and Mark & Sarah seized upon it immediately - "That's pretty bad-ass," as a spontaneous player blurt, is a good start to any session. For us, after that, everything else became vivid.

To avoid maundering about the details: suffice to say that the town was secure but a little boring, run tight as a drum by the leader Gear, and fed mostly by grey spongy gunk grown in vats (my purpose for the weird-shaped buildings). In my phone conversation with James, I posited a fight with a weird once-human mushroom bending fast to batter characters and spatter them with spores – he said, "Yeah, like that!" with some enthusiasm. So, why not? To me, mushroom means "infection and transformation," which tied into the locked-down, monitored-entry aspect of the town. The players practically booted my own prep down the road without me even trying, as the player-characters were so revolted by the food vats in town that they readily agreed to accept some contraband yummies from an NPC - fortunately both of them tasted the bad mushrooms, looked at each other, turned to warn the NPC, who asks "What?" while masticating a mouthful of them ...

I suggest that playing this game benefits greatly from my discussion of Bangs in Sorcerer. James, I'll elaborate if you want.

OK, I think you can see that the resolution mechanic needs to be a fast, harsh, and useful to the dynamics. For mutations, criticals need to be readily available; for bearings, effects of rolls need to be solid and potentially extreme. I talked with James about alternatives to the mechanic he provides, which I think is a bit clunky toward those ends, but as it happens, didn't have the time to work up the numbers for the alternative I wanted to try. So we used the original, and fair's fair, it was pretty usable. But as I anticipated, it simply didn't generate strong enough in-play results on anything – damage in particular seems pretty weak – and although we saw our share of criticals, none of them seemed to land square on any of Tetsubishi's mutations, so no increase, let alone a Cascade. This, in a game in which we rolled dice constantly, seems to need some help. James, I'll number-crunch a little and provide an alternative like I described on the phone, just for purposes of discussion.

To round out my description of the session, sure enough, the situation came down to what the characters were and weren't willing to do for the village, and some very bad Lying rolls led to them being dragooned into saving the day. Cue flame, a lot of it, and some lucky ways for a weasel not to roast herself, and things worked out OK. I bumped the world's bearings upward toward Law (community threat stabilized, leader's authority maintained), and a little toward Innovation, because their solution turned out to be a mix of Innovation and Tradition, but the innovative part was the most consequential.

Overall, there's no real fixed arc to play. I can anticipate certain milestones like a character's death exist, or the potential for the World Grid to stabilize through two or more scenarios, but none of them are tagged with "stop playing." The point is to enjoy the personal drama of encountering limits to one's ideology, exerting extreme effort, seeing one's actions changing the world, finding how one another's ideologies interact in any way, all under the gun of increasing risk of death the more effort you put in. At that level, I think it's a nice dynamic mix of mechanics which will generate plenty of character arc and setting-change features. You play basically until collectively, people think "the novel" is over, whenever and however. We all agreed that's the right choice, as the dynamics are integrated and consequential enough to let such things develop without further structure.

So that's it! We were all pleasantly surprised, as I thought it was the rawest playtest draft I'd received via the Sorcerer Kickstart, and it turned out to be quite compelling, both for the rather likeable if utterly roguish characters and for the social SF side.

Best, Ron

purestrainhuman

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #1 on: January 28, 2014, 07:46:16 AM »
Thanks for the feedback, there is certainly a lot to chew on here. I am headed off to work, but I will think this over and engage more fully tonight.

Thanks again!

Ron Edwards

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #2 on: January 28, 2014, 10:40:35 AM »

Miskatonic

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #3 on: January 28, 2014, 08:32:19 PM »
What? What? That sounds awesome.

Did someone say motorcycle centaurs?
Larry

Ron Edwards

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #4 on: January 28, 2014, 09:10:13 PM »
Holy cow, Larry, that is precisely the single image that ever inspired me about that concept! I saw that machine in 1981!

purestrainhuman

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #5 on: January 29, 2014, 08:28:36 PM »
Okay, got caught up last night, but free and clear tonight, so here we go...

First off, thanks for taking the time to play and write about From the Ashes.  As you say, it's still pretty raw, but I feel like I'm clawing my way towards something cool, and feedback like this helps like nobody's business.

So...

Love the Strikeforce: Morituri reference!  I hadn't even considered that as I haven't read that since I was but a lad, but I guess it's obvious how much of an impact it had on me, and it's definitely going to have to be mentioned as an influence.

Regarding the character creation process, you say you were less than enthusiastic going into it, but "at the end of it, all of us were pretty pleased with the characters and eager to see them go." - did your opinion of the process change as you got into it, or were you all just happy with the characters themselves?  I wanted something a bit more organic than, "pick your point on the map", something that would tease out some of the spirit of the character before play began.  If there's a better way I can achieve that, I'd love to talk it through.

As you say, I definitely need to add more of a description of the world, although I'm not sure I necessarily want there to be "The Setting", so maybe more just some suggestions, some "typical settings", and the inclusion of an "Appendix N" type list to help guide the reader?

It's unfortunate that you didn't find the Rivals compelling.  My goal (which I obviously did not succeed at) was to make them precisely what you say they weren't - representations and highlights of extreme ends of the axes, with the Totalitariants and the Angels and the Prophets being Traditional/Law, the racists being Traditional/Anarchy, etc.  So I need to rework the descriptions to highlight those qualities.  Maybe even assign them their own Bearings?  I dug through my games, and as it turns out I actually have a copy of Whispering Vault, which I think was one of the systems you mentioned I might find some inspiration from as I assign values, to simplify the system and give it the visceral "punch" it seems to be lacking?  I've got it on my "To Read" pile for this weekend, so hopefully I can draw off of that, but if you're willing to crunch some numbers, I'd love to take a look at them.

While I'm familiar with Bangs, it would definitely help if you could expand on how I could correlate them to the game.

"The point is to enjoy the personal drama of encountering limits to one's ideology, exerting extreme effort, seeing one's actions changing the world, finding how one another's ideologies interact in any way, all under the gun of increasing risk of death the more effort you put in."

This is an excellent summary of my design goals, and I'm pleased that you were able to tease that out. 

And seriously?  Motorcycle Centaurs?  You'll get credit, but I'm stealing the hell out of that idea!

Ron Edwards

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #6 on: January 30, 2014, 12:26:51 AM »
Hey!

The quiz did help a lot with player commitment to the characters, but I think it began earlier in the process, with the mutations.

The setting issue is always tough with a game concept like this. When you're working from a strong, interactive mechanical dynamic, you need the setting to fit it – it can't be mere "skin." But what's meant by setting, exactly? An 800-page gazetteer? No, of course not, as you stated to me on the phone. What's meant is what a setting can provide that serves the mechanics in question.

So if you provide a single canonical setting with details and even a map, or a few sketchy starting points to pick from, or whatever … it doesn't matter. What matters is that the reader can understand what the setting material is supposed to do – maybe not even in so many words, merely through the pure Color impact of the images or situations you're calling "setting."

The problem with the Rivals is simple: by placing them at the extremes of the axes, you're canceling out the whole point of the grid, which is the potential to act in different ways. Similarly, and related, they offer nothing but danger. You can get blown up, eaten, oozed, or whatever – all to death. There's nothing to do with any of the listed menaces except to fight or run.

I suggest instead coming up with entities which offer opportunities. I used the motorcycle centaurs primarily as Color to showcase the landscape, not as the primary source of adversity in our adventure, because as conceived at the moment, they were nothing but danger. Danger is not what you need, "Oh no, my guy might die 'cause motorcycle centaurs." Danger is spice and risk to the larger dynamics of play – my mushroom guy was the real antagonist because the spores put the bite on the high-security village, its leader, and how the characters were going to relate to this community.

So if I were to use the motorcycle centaurs as a primary component of a scenario, I'd do better to think of them in social-SF terms, high-anarchy in some ways (brutal, knowing no external law) but perhaps high-authority in others (rigid pecking order, strict in-group code of conduct). Maybe dealing with them is dangerous and could go very badly, but maybe they'd be useful against some really awful problem or maybe finding a way to deal with them socially would work out better. The scenario would be about any which way the characters chose to deal with them, and any which way the situation might jump based on choices and mechanics.

Bangs … well, you're a Kickstart backer, so you have Sorcerer, specifically Chapter 4, and its annotations. Looking that over, what I'd like to emphasize here is that Bangs are never hooks into a prepped sequence of story-arc events. They topple the applecart of any given situation, that's what they're for. Only play itself lets you know where things go from there.

Let me know if any of this helps!

Best, Ron

scorcha

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Re: [From the Ashes] Tetsubishi and Vin Weasel do some mushrooms
« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2014, 08:06:59 PM »
What? What? That sounds awesome.

Did someone say motorcycle centaurs?

Not as awesome as Vin Weisel. Vin Wiesel is the awesome.