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.