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Title: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 08:47:01 AM
If you played Grey Ranks at Dreamation I particularly invite your feedback here!

I ran two sessions of Grey Ranks at Dreamation 2007, Friday and Saturday from 9AM to 1PM.  It was an early slot but I was gratified by a large sign-up.  Friday ended up having four players (I facilitated and observed) and Saturday had three (plus me - I played). 

I asked both groups why they chose to participate, and the reasons varied - some were interested in seeing "what was new" and being a part of a playtest, one was interested in the time and place, one the thematic content, and a couple were drawn by The Roach and wanted to see what I was up to next.  Emily Care Boss participated as a friend and colleague, and was one of three people I'd previously known that played.  Everybody was engaged and excited to participate.

I began each session with a general overview of the game's background, and a lines and veils discussion.  This is part of the procedure of play and I really think it is essential - an example of why follows.  For the convention games I ran Scenes 5, 6 and 7 for each group, out of a desire to provide a challenging and entertaining session.  As stand-alone sessions without continuity, Act One and Act Three tend to be a little flat, since adversity is either mild or outrageous in turn.  I think this will be fine for play as intended (three sessions), but I didn't want to subject con players to either extreme. 

Both sessions hit their stride and provided pretty satisfying play, which was heartening.  There were dramatic moments and tragedy, and each group found their own mix of personal and mission intensity and involvement, which was especially useful to contrast across two days for me.  The first group was significantly darker than the second. 

There was an excellent moment I'll relate as an example.  In the first playtest one player (A) chose "My First Love" as the Thing his character Held Dear.  He chose another player (B)'s character as the object of his adoration, and both players were explicitly cool with that.  Both players and both characters were male.  Late in the session A had invoked the Thing He Held Dear for a mechanical bonus, and found himself in desperate straits again.  He chose to destroy the Thing He Held Dear, and we all agreed that this would mean savage rejection.  The two players set up a scene, A's character unburdened his heart, and B, in character, cruelly tore into him - calling him a fag, telling him he was ashamed, and saying that if he could, he'd pin a pink triangle on him and send him to the Germans.  It was ugly and shocking, and I was enormously glad we'd had the lines and veils discussion, because everybody was ready for it and completely engaged.  It was a really tragic, satisfying moment of play. 

I learned a lot and I'm really grateful to the playtesters at Dreamation - thanks, everybody!  I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on the game, its strengths and weaknesses, what confused you and what excited you, and the experience you had with it.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Bret Gillan on January 29, 2007, 11:00:51 AM
This game is a big deal to me. It was my game of the convention, and I am definitely grabbing it when it comes out. I think I realized how important this game is when I was talking to my girlfriend on the phone from the convention and I said, "I just got done playing a child soldier in the Warsaw Uprising." When do you say something like instead of "I was a knight" or "I was a vampire"? This is one of those games like Breaking the Ice or Contenders that needs to exist so we can point at it when people talk about games being about dragons and lasers. Also, it was just plain great.

I think the thing that thrilled me the most about the game is the built-in maturity mechanics. Your characters start off awkward and immature, and end up confident and capable. Which then makes their ultimate demise even more tragic. This part of the game is what wow'ed me the most.

In terms of weakness as it currently exists, I'm not sure I buy into the competitive aspects of the game as being necessary or even desirable. The pooling of the dice and the ability to burn other people's Held Dear don't strike me as adding anything to the game, and in a situation where the PCs are inevitably going to be beat down I don't feel the urge to add competitiveness to the difficulties of the game - I just want to band together and sympathize with mine and everyone else's characters. And in the game we played, I didn't really get a competitive vibe at all.

I was confused by the "flipping the score" effect of Grid movement when you're on the edge. Going from extremely enthusiastic to totally exhausted or likewise full of love to full of hate surprised me when at all other times movement is more gradual. I'm not saying it doesn't make sense or that it's a bad thing, but it threw me when it occurred in the game and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Overall, though, this is a really strong game and if you published it right now I would not be dissatisfied.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 12:26:44 PM
Thanks Bret, for your kind words.  I'm really glad you had a good time playing. 

It's interesting that you picked up on the competitive aspects - mechanically the game would work fine without them.  I put them there to add pressure to an already impossible situation, with the hopes that minor betrayals and selfishness would add up to create serious and interesting intra-group conflicts.  Like you, I have not seen this happen yet, but perhaps unlike you, I really want to!

The grid issue is sort of a thorn, because it does create some causality challenges for players - why am I suddenly filled with hate?  My hope is that those abrupt shocks spur creativity, but I'm open to other suggestions for how a character moves when they hit an edge - any thoughts on other solutions? 


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Robert Bohl on January 29, 2007, 12:44:54 PM
I basically entirely agree with what Bret said, but if you want the potential for backstabbing to be there, it might be difficult to see it realized with the enormous odds arrayed against them.  I don't really have an answer for what to do with the grid-flipping, except perhaps that if you can get stuck on an extreme and unable to go further.  The only time "you can't go further" would matter would be if you're at one of the vertices of extremity, in which case doubling up woul cause you to go boom.

I'm curious what happens players when their characters die.  Do they just sit out?  Do they make a new character?

--

I quite enjoyed the game and am sorry I had to cut out early, but I was satisfied with the fact that it allowed us to see the "death" mechanics.  I was also very happy with the character I created.  The German-named, German-hating thing was a hell of a lot of fun.  The gay angst and the crushing of the guy-to-my-right's youthful exuberance were great too.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 12:54:49 PM
I'm curious what happens players when their characters die.  Do they just sit out?  Do they make a new character?
Hey Rob, I liked your guy so much I basically stole him as my own character for the second playtest! 

I need to state it in the rules, but if your character is written out of the story (death, capture, 18th birthday, whatever) you still get mission and personal vignettes, but they are about your absence rather than your presence.  And you are still there to play NPCs, help with color, add Situation, and so forth. 


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Robert Bohl on January 29, 2007, 12:58:59 PM
I'm curious what happens players when their characters die.  Do they just sit out?  Do they make a new character?
Hey Rob, I liked your guy so much I basically stole him as my own character for the second playtest! 

Wow, I'm all floaty.

Quote from: I need to state it in the rules, but if your character is written out of the story (death, capture, 18th birthday, whatever) you still get mission and personal vignettes, but they are about your absence rather than your presence.  And you are still there to play NPCs, help with color, add Situation, and so forth. 
[/quote

Gotcha.  That seems like a reasonable solution, as long as disappearance of personified PC happens relatively late.  If you go out early (which knowing the math seems unlikely) that could get old.  And unfortunately that'll be the one thing that's hardest to playtest.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Bret Gillan on January 29, 2007, 01:04:58 PM
Jason,

I don't really have any ideas on how to resolve the Grid situation, and you know - maybe it's not something that needs to be resolved. I mean, sure, it could cause causality problems but I'll be entirely honest - I didn't take any cues whatsoever from the Grid with regards to how I played my character. And it wasn't an act of defiance or anything, there was just no reason or reminder to as Grid location was only utilized in the chapter setup and aftermath. And I'd be interested to hear if anyone else was taking cues for their roleplaying from the Grid.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 01:06:42 PM
It's possible to get written out as early as scene five (out of nine), but that's a perfect storm situation - and it's also a week into the Uprising, so I'm totally OK with a departure at that point.  I *think* it'll be fairly common to lose a few PCs in Act Three.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 01:09:10 PM
And I'd be interested to hear if anyone else was taking cues for their roleplaying from the Grid.

Actually I wasn't either, and that's a great point.  I think it can serve as a useful tool for playing a character, and the corner you "exit" from would obviously matter when you were deciding the character's fate, but beyond that, I'm not sure more attention needs to be called to it.  I'd like to hear what other player's reactions to this are.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Robert Bohl on January 29, 2007, 01:15:11 PM
I did pay attention to the grid, and I did use it as a roleplaying aid.  I sort of saw where I was heading, and roleplayed in tandem with that.  Also, when I knew I wanted to "die," I picked the corner that made most sense for my PC and drove there.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Mel White on January 29, 2007, 01:34:12 PM
I also enjoyed playing Grey Ranks and I'm happy to provide some feedback.

And I'd be interested to hear if anyone else was taking cues for their roleplaying from the Grid.

I assumed at first that there _must_ be a good direction to go on the grid.  Obviously, that's not the case and it's not a problem with the game--it's a feature!  So I didn't really play with moving on the grid in mind, but I was well away from the corners so I recognized that if I got too close to a corner I might have to seek to fail at my personal vignette or seek to have the mission fail in order to control the direction of my movement. 

In other areas, I was confused at first that mission vignettes for each player don't require a roll roll while personal vignettes do.  But my confusion cleared up after a turn or two and has nothing to do with the actual rules.  
I like the 'grid-flipping'; I prefer that to getting stuck on the edge or standing still.  An option might be to randomize the move when moving off the grid.  In other words, the token doesn't just move one square but could move to any square on that row (or column)--even the origin, which would be very bad if the origin was a corner.  But I don't have a problem with the current method.  
I really enjoyed the 'phrase selection' at the beginning of each scene as inspiration for that scene.  If I remember correctly, there was no requirement to include those phrases in the scene but it might be more rewarding to the players if there was a requirement...It would be a lot of fun to see how other players interpret the phrase I picked.
The Radio Lightning broadcasts were useful in establishing the big picture.  As you mentioned, they also could be used for inspiration in the scenes.  Having both the phrases and the Radio broadcasts may be too much inspiration, though.  I'd modify the Radio broadcasts to be less of Radio Lightning's view of the situation to a more neutral point of view (or perhaps the BBC) reporting the state of the front lines, the depiction of the ever shrinking perimeter, the preparations to  drop air bundles...I think it would be neat for the players to hear how the Germans are gradually reducing the Polish stronghold from an outsider's point of view--because the outsiders would be less passionate and more objective.  
All in all, though, it was a great game--I hated losing my rosary!
Mel


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: phredd on January 29, 2007, 02:34:28 PM
Thanks for the chance to try the game out.  It was a blast.

I didn't take cues from the grid either.  I did, however, push my cube in the direction I was intending to start my player out with when you had us adjust for starting in scene 5.   I didn't try to game the grid at all either, but I might have done so ala RobNJ if I saw my character's arc heading that way.  Thinking about that in retrospect makes me less inclined to worry about wrapping around the grid. 

I really liked the scene elements list, which worked well in conjunction with one player acting as team leader and coming up with a mission objective.

I also liked the mission and the personal vignettes and how they worked just fine.  Confusion was an issue, but I think you could work a bit on figuring out some ways to
clarify this (perhaps by using language that makes them more distinct from each other). Having everyone pool the dice together and then distribute them again didn't seem to have much effect on the game to me.  Personally, I was happy as a clam with whatever die fell my way.  That also combined with the Age related modifiers to make things a little murky at the start of a scene. 

One thought that just occurred to me about the mission of a scene is that the players don't have all that much impact on the outcome of it with your current setup.  Beyond deliberately giving a lousy die to the mission pool, there's not much that could be done.  I think this is fine, provided all the players/characters want a mission to succeed.  But what do you think about allowing players to contribute a poison die or the like, with some sort of heavy price to be paid for the privilege?  Just a thought.

I like the idea of a more objective version of Radio Lightning.  That could be done a bit more briefly, I think, while driving the point home theme and atmosphere-wise. 

And a brief clarification about my character's coming out to his first love (I'm Player A).  During the scene when I made my confession, I was trying to get Player B to stop mother henning his younger brother as a personal scene.  I failed.  Then, I invoked my first love to get a D12 re-roll, which I'd pretty much set the scene up to do.  After Player B said he had to protect his younger brother because he loved him so much, I sputtered out in anger how I'd managed not to do that to him despite my own feelings.  So I didn't devastate my own thing I held dear, merely left myself open to it being crushed like a bug.  I won the reroll and then Player B destroyed it to force me to re-roll again, causing my ultimate failure and making the pink triangle comments.  Definitely was a great scene to be involved in.

I also loved it when his younger brother betrayed us in order to be able to go on the mission anyway, not to mention when said younger brother kept badgering me about why Lena had to go to the outskirts of the city to see a doctor.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 02:56:55 PM
Thanks, guys, for the comments.  Phredd, I loved the stuff with Lena being pregnant and your mission being framed as taking her to an abortionist - fucked up and harrowing, particularly when she died.  Thanks for the clarification on the example I gave.  It actually was punchier than I described.

I agree that the Radio Lightning broadcasts need to be tightened up - they are a little too long right now.  I was struck by the desperation they embody - shortwave was the only real connection with the outside world, and they were literally begging for help starting on 8 August in real life.  It seems very dramatic to me, so Mel and Phredd - how would an objective, BBC World Service broadcast make for a better game?  Share your thoughts on this.

I scribbled a note to try the game without the re-distribution of Mission dice, which does seem fiddly in play.  I wanted that step to add selfishness and distrust to the crew, but that doesn't seem to happen, and the die sizes are generally quite similar, making the choice uneventful in many cases.  There will be legitimate conflict between players who need to fail the mission and those who need to succeed, which is interesting to me.  I think that can be addressed with limited use special resources like Thing You Hold Dear, allowing you to re-roll a failure or a success.  Maybe there need to be more of those, rather than just two.  I do want it to mean something when you use it, though. 


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Mel White on January 29, 2007, 05:15:42 PM
Well, a BBC broadcast might be better at setting the mood because it would not be Polish propaganda.  The BBC-like broadcast would only cover (or mostly cover) what's happening from the perspective of someone outside the city--perhaps what could be seen from reconnaissance flights or a handful of spies and intercepts.  So the players would recognize the broadcasts as facts in the larger war that depict the initial successes, but then the Soviet delays and the German ring closing in on Warsaw.  The Radio Lightning broadcasts--that we heard in the scenes we played--gave a sense of what was happening in the city, but I don't recall that they gave a sense that time was running out.  It may just be that the 'feel' I'm thinking about would be in later scenes.  But I do think that it would be more harrowing to know that the Poles' pleas for help are not being answered than to actually hear the pleas themselves.
Some of the facts that are recounted in the Radio Lightning broadcasts could be added to the scene elements lists--if they're not there already--the use of human shields and other atrocities, off-target allied airdrops, crashed allied bomber, etc.

The BBC broadcasts might not exactly meet the war-censor test, but they would help inform the players that help is not coming. 





Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: phredd on January 29, 2007, 05:28:44 PM
Re: The mission success issue...  How does this sound?:  Instead of re-rolls just being with d12s, how about making a re-roll have the option of using a d4 or a d12?

As for the idea about the BBC, I thought their outsider POV might provide a punchier description of the plight of the uprising in Warsaw.  I just dug up some BBC coverage from the start (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/1/newsid_3932000/3932555.stm) and the end (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/3/newsid_3560000/3560811.stm) of the uprising.  I don't think that it really does what I thought it would do.  I think reading out that text wouldn't be materially different from Radio Lightning.  So maybe an abridged version of Radio Lightning that incorporates a concrete general assessment of how things stand would be a better idea.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 29, 2007, 05:45:07 PM
Thanks for those links - I hadn't seen them! 

The way it stands you can re-roll a die as it sits or exchange it for a d12.  So if you are angling for failure, it's actually a little harder than success, but not much.  That needs to be streamlined and clarified, because it is a clunky rule.

I'm going to mercilessly edit down the Radio Lightning broadcasts and time them to make sure they are under, say, 120  seconds.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Emily Care on January 29, 2007, 07:25:18 PM
I got a lot out of the Radio Lightning broadcasts, but do agree that they'd be better shorter. Likely hearing them go from the news at Scene 1 to Scene 7 we'd get more of a sense of the impending doom. But Jason, I didn't realize they were pleas for help from the two I heard. Emphasizing that would increase (?!?!) the pathos, I am sure.

I think I agree with Bret that the edge of competition among the players seems un-needed and a bit jarring. I never framed the actions people took in that light. For example, when I torched your character's faith to get you to re-roll the losing die for Bret's character to love him, I honestly did it to help. Though of course, if I'd really meant it I suppose I should have torched my own character's love of her friends. Ironically, that would have been most appropriate.

But sacrifice seems more appropro. And even when trashing one another, I felt that the players did so with an underlying compassion and love, even.

Pooling the dice seemed interesting to me since it gave me a choice about the scene framing I planned for my mission scenes. Much better than having that be deterministically dictated by the grid. The second round of allocation for one another was harder. I didn't want to skunk anyone.

One simple point that I'd very much recommend adopting as a matter of course was what Lisa mentioned in our playtest: keep the dice on the character sheet until used, to help keep straight who had done their mission scene/vignette. I kept glancing around at other player's sheets trying to discern what was yet to come and who still needed spotlight/plot time.

The vignette/mission sequences work beautifully. As Mel, I think, said, I was confused by it at first, but came to love it, especially know what would happen.  I think I noticed that these scenes were more often given in summary or soliloquy form by the player who initiated them. Makes sense since there was no resolution needed.  Makes for a quick flow of play, though I enjoyed the ones that were role played out better.  You answered the question of role play verses telling well at the table ("groups will choose their level"), and I can't think of a good way to enforce play. Perhaps it's not necessary. But I noticed in my games too that the more interaction between players, the more likelihood of role playing. And also, role playing is not entirely necessary for a great game to ensue. At the time, I remember thinking it might be good to simply address the difference between summarizing a scene versus acting it out to give players a kick in the pants to choose consciously what they will do.

The role of being the Leader worked well. Especially with the scene elements that had been chosen by everyone. That is a slick little way to get everyone on the same page and to create a way to quickly allow the scene to be framed while incorporating elements that matter/have been created by the whole group. Very nicely and functionally collaborative. Are there other roles that the Leader takes? Like keeping play moving by having people initiate their scenes? However, I felt bad when I found out that "commending" someone at the end of the turn had a bad effect on the character I gave it to.  I was choosing between Bret who had had the strongest character scene, and Lisa whose character had added the most to the mission.  But whichever I would have given it to, I'd have thrown into a corner cell.

I suppse you may have made it hard for a reason. If we do hurt each other, it's only a small fraction of the situation they were in. How lame to be quibbling over such a small betrayal we have to give. But still, it was hard. An alternative would be to have the commendation give them a second move in the direction of their choice. However, the betrayal might be part of the point. Is it?

Oh, and another reason to have the other players be the one to destroy your hold-dear's is that it releaves the player of the responsiblity of doing that to their own character, and makes it more likely to happen over all.  The context in which hurting eachother seems to make the most sense in this game is not really knifing one another out of competition or vengeance, but out of desperation and scarcity of choices and resources.

RE the grid: I kept it in the back of my mind, but didn't steer by it particularly.  I took my cue mainly from the traits on the sheet. Writing the quadrant or nearest axis on the character sheet might have been a way to keep it more in the foreground.

I'm looking forward to playing the whole game sometime soon.

best,
Emily


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Robert Bohl on January 29, 2007, 08:46:46 PM
Man, I missed some hot shit after I left!

Jason, would it be appropriate to have the Radio Lightning broadcasts tracking a single story or a single thread?  As it stood, I found myself disengaging after the second one, and not only because of length (though that was no doubt part of it).  It's just that the broadcasts didn't feel like they had too much to do with us, and I didn't really have a narrative to follow.

Or maybe I'm just a lazy listener, that's always a possibility.


Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] Dreamation Playtests
Post by: Jason Morningstar on January 30, 2007, 05:11:21 AM
Good comments and much appreciated.

Competition among players - I'm revisiting this.  It's been sort of fading in intensity in the design since the beginnign and may just not be necessary.

Lisa's suggestion about the die pool and die handling is excellent and I'm going to implement that, or something similar.  I found myself asking for a show of hands to track scene progress way too much.  It needs to be pretty obvious with a casual glance around who needs to do a scene.

Emily, I like the idea of adding some metagame responsibility to the Leader role, to kick people in the pants and push the scene forward, add complications, encourage the introduction of situation and NPC elements. 

I still need a better phrase for what the Leader does after each mission - "Singled Out" sounds a little awkward to me.  Originally the Leader awarded both "Weak Link" and "MVP" (with the MVP rewarded with a move in the direction of his or her choice), but it seemed like too much, since 50% of the players are then doping something fiddly on the grid each scene.  Maybe the answer is to award either a positive or negative consequence to a single character who stood out somehow.  Like choosing to lose, the award can be a tactical decision if the Leader wants it to be. 

Thanks for all the feedback - this is hugely valuable.